Films that try too hard inevitably repel the very audience they want to seduce. Audiences like a little mystery, a bit of ambiguity to get the juices flowing. When a film lays all the cards on the table simply to appease the characters’ neuroses and insecurities, it becomes self-congratulatory. Romantic comedies suffer from this affliction more than any other genre, invariably because their core narrative conventions are coiled around extreme acts of emotional display.
Gustavo Taretto’s Sidewalls, a postmodern deconstruction of the romance picture, is the perfect example of a film stricken with the constant need to please. You can hear the desperation in the film’s precious voiceover narration by lonely website designer Martin (Javier Drolas) and conflicted architect Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) during an angsty opening act riddled with social commentary. As both separately muse about the contradictions of living in Buenos Aires, an impersonal city Martin explains is “growing uncontrollably and imperfectly,” issues of confined space and lifeless architecture reflect the human dilemmas at hand. One familiar dichotomy emerges: the separation from physical contact and dedication to an online experience the plagues the current dating pool. “We’ve created a culture of tenants,” Martin later says, continuing to hammer home his irony-leaden manifesto despite the stench of redundancy wafting through his 400-square-foot “shoebox” apartment.
Much of Sidewalls examines Martin and Mariana’s unsatisfying daily routines, the way human interaction in public spaces contrasts with private experiences, and how we protract life’s small moments to make sense of the world. Plot remains thin throughout: Martin has a short affair with a dog walker (Inés Efron) and Mariana meets an attractive psychologist (Rafael Ferro) at the gym. Taretto treats these fleeting relationships with patience and nuance, but continuously spells out his thematic intentions with more annoying voiceover. Aside from the nagging interior monologues, plenty of aesthetic flourishes are thrown in for no good reason other than to create a sense of quirkiness. Animation, motion graphics, and slow motion all pop up at some point, further splintering Sidewalls into a pandering pastiche of better films.
To his credit, Taretto spins the romantic comedy merry-go-round in different directions than his current American counterparts, keeping the two main characters emotionally and physically separate for nearly the entire film. But it’s telling that the sobering moments of isolation have a greater impact than the fated meet-cute denouement. When not grasping at emotional straws, Sidewalls confronts the idea that urban spaces must be re-imagined in order to combat a growing wave of mass emotional repression. Martin and Mariana’s individual acts of civil disobedience speak to this idea, yet Taretto still frames their personal revelations with sledgehammer sentimentality, ensuring the proverbial “ahhhh” at the end of each scene. Taretto challenges genre conventions by engaging the palpable overlap between physical and emotional disconnection, but that doesn’t change the fact he and his film are trying entirely too hard to make us swoon, and that’s the biggest turnoff of them all.