I actually passed on seeing "Sliding Doors" several years ago because of a review I read by Roger Ebert. I knew about the basic premise of the film, which is that a character played by Gwyneth Paltrow gets on a subway train and does not get on a subway train. The film goes back and forth between the two plotlines, basically playing out both sides of Robert Frost's two paths diverging in the woods. Ebert's complaint was that taken independently neither of the plotlines was worth watching, which was enough to convince me to see something else.
Well, now I have seen "Sliding Doors" and while I agree with Ebert's critique, I want to argue that what is interesting about this film is not the two plotlines but the way they interact. Think of it as two wrongs making a right or the total effect being greater than the sum of the two parts or whatever makes sense to you. Writer-director Peter Howitt makes "Sliding Doors" into more than just a gimmick film. It is not in the class of "Groundhog Day" or "Memento," but it is certainly on a level with "50 First Dates."
Paltrow plays Helen Quilley. One morning she goes off to work, leaving behind her lover, Gerry (John Lynch). As soon as she gets to work she is sacked. On the way home she both catches and misses the subway in a sequences that is rather clumsily staged, but you get the idea. The Helen on the subway gets home in time to catch Gerry in bed with his supposedly ex-lover, Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). The Helen who misses the subway gets hurt when her purse is stolen and gets home after Lydia has left and therefore knows nothing about the affair.
Because of the near mugging Howitt is able to have one Helen look different from the other because of a bandage on her head after the hospital visit. By the time that heals the other Helen, trying to put Gerry behind her, has shortened her hair and bleached in blonde. The other key distinction is that while one Helen is still with Gerry, working two jobs in order to support him while he (does not) write a novel (and does continue to see Lydia), the other is seeing James (John Hannah), a nice man she met on the subway home and who believes the Monty Python line "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" helps to put life in perspective (which is certainly true).
It seems fairly obvious that both Helens should be with James and leave Gerry far behind, but it seems clear that Howitt is going to work the irony angles as much as possible in this film. It is not so much that these are parallel stories as their are recurring elements of symmetry and at some point I decided that what was going to happen here was that Howitt was going to be able to have his cake and eat it two. This indeed turns out to be the case, but telling you that does not give away the end game.
Paltrow is fine in the main role, although why the two main female characters had to be played by American actresses is beyond me. Tripplehorn's character is in the "Fatal Attraction" mold, which makes Gerry's inability to choose between Helen and Lydia rather laughable, a fact repeatedly pointed out to him by his friend, Russell (Douglas McFerran) at the bar. Russell has the best lines in the film, calling Gerry "a morality-free zone" and pointing out that his advice will be unappreciated since it is based in reality. Lynch manages to play Gerry so that there is some hope of redemption and we remain open to the idea that things could work out between him and Helen, while we wait for Helen to catch up with our feelings for Hannah's character, who is likeable in a rather surprisingly unpretentious way for such a gabby guy.
This is not a brilliant and creative film, but Howitt constructs what I think is a smart story line bouncing back and forth between the lives of the two Helens. There is no profound point to be made in the end beyond the ancient idea that when it comes to the lives of human beings and their attempts to find love in the world the gods tend to look down and laugh. But in a world where so many films are exercises in stupidity and I find myself thinking that what ended up on screen was a first draft that needed some serious work, "Sliding Doors" has all the pieces fit. The other film I have seen by Howitt, "Antitrust," was also smartly crafted, although in that one somebody else wrote the script. Still, that is not a bad pair of films for viewers who like to have their brains engaged.
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