Sliding Doors (1998): United Kingdom/United States – directed by Peter Howitt
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains language, sexual content (edited by Miramax from the original UK release)
Sliding Doors is a bit of a different romantic comedy, in a couple of ways. To begin with, it adds a slight supernatural or science fiction gimmick to its plot, though this has been done before (and more proficiently, in Brad Anderson’s Happy Accidents). Secondly, it is remarkably tragic in a number of ways, and is surprisingly light on the comedic aspect of the genre. There are a number of cute moments, some humor, and some interesting plot devices, but Sliding Doors ultimately cannot follow through on its more lofty goals of being a cerebral rom-com.
Gwyneth Paltrow is cute and tiny as Helen. Her job is PR, in London, and on one fateful day her world is split in two, almost literally. After leaving the flat she shares with her boyfriend, aspiring author Gerry (John Lynch), she arrives late for work and discovers she has been sacked for stealing bottles of vodka (Smirnoff; it shouldn’t be surprising that the brand responsible for changing the fundamental nature of martinis with the help of Bond films has managed to pop up here). Dejected she leaves work, bumping into James (The Mummy’s John Hannah, here less amusing and slapsticky) in the elevator. Arriving at the train station she finds herself running late, and the doors close before she gets there.
But wait, there is a magical sound effect as “reverse” is pressed on the VCR, and she backs up. Now her run to the door is not hampered, and she sneaks onto the train in the nick of time. From here on her life will be split in two, with radically different consequences in each life. To be fair, the gimmick isn’t as cheesy as it sounds, and has the potential to delve into the possibility of infinitely diverging universes.
Sliding Doors has no desire to go this route, however, and is more content with showing two possible realities for Helen. In one she makes the train, arriving home unexpectedly to find her boyfriend straddled by another woman (Jeanne Triplehorn). Immediately dumping him, she embarks on a new life with the help of her friend Anna (Zara Turner) and the complications offered by James, a friendly and unimposing fellow. In the second (or first?) time line she misses the train, tries to grab a cab, is mugged and hits her head, and gets to the flat as Gerry is showering after his tryst. Helen continues with her semi-miserable life, albeit with extra attention from Gerry as he tries to convince her that he’s not having an affair and is actually quite a pleasant fellow.
The more interesting of these time lines is most certainly the one with James, as he proves a most helpful fellow. He’s a bit foolish with his words, but is well-intentioned and quite lacking in pretension. His relationship with Helen advances slowly and awkwardly; on its own this thread would make for a pleasant though generic romantic comedy. The other time line is weaker, with Helen taking two jobs to support her and Gerry. As she suffers, Gerry and his ex/current affair Lydia both become insufferable stereotypes. She’s catty and needy, and her personality often changes with the wind. Gerry becomes even more whiny and paranoid, until Helen can’t help but discover the truth.
There is potential for a plot designed this way to explore new romantic comedy territory, but Sliding Doors is happy with the status quo. Helen mustn’t be complete without a satisfactory man in her life, though she is allowed to find fulfillment in one of her time lines with a new business opportunity. However, the film isn’t afraid to delve into tragedy, as it introduces some dark themes toward the end. The nature of these tragedies is at odds with the majority of the bubbly film, and are almost treated too flippantly to be truthful and serious. The diverging stories are wrapped up, but no explanation is given (thankfully) for the time line split.
There are aspects of Sliding Doors to appreciate, and I imagine fans of slightly different romantic tragi-comedies may enjoy the film. Paltrow is convincing and effective, even with a quasi-English accent. Lynch is too one-dimensional, though this is more the fault of Peter Howitt’s script (he also directed the film, his first feature). Tripplehorn plays seductive-obsessive fairly well, though she, too, is one-sided and lacks depth. Hannah is the most interesting individual in the film. He’s a bit funny looking, but is disarmingly charming much of the time even if his hinted-at secret is nothing more than a momentary distraction. Sliding Doors will please some fans of the genre, and infuriate others, as it neither plays completely by the rules nor is bold enough to forge its own way. In the end it turns out to be confused, with enough of a mixture of pleasant cuteness and disturbing flippancy to be merely mediocre.