Sliding Doors (1998)

Sliding DoorsStarring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Zara Turner, Douglas McFerran.
Written and directed by Peter Howitt.

Grade: B

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

Have you ever missed a subway train, or a bus, by just a few seconds, perhaps because you stopped to look for your sunglasses or paused to chat with so-and-so? In Helen's case (Gwyneth Paltrow), catching or not catching a subway train means the difference between discovering her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) in bed with another woman (Lydia, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), or remaining ignorant of his affair. The two different possibilities evolve into two parallel storylines featuring the same characters. Conveniently, Helen changes her hairstyle in one of the two alternate realities, making it easy to keep the storylines apart. In one storyline, Helen dumps Gerry and meets charming and witty James (John Hannah). In the second, Helen continues living with Gerry, who struggles to keep his two relationships under control.

The parallel storylines lend Sliding Doors an originality that most other romantic comedies lack. The film moves from one story to the other seamlessly and maintains interest in both. Moreover, unlike the average romantic comedy, where the heroes' romantic adversaries are too cartoonishly unsympathetic, the villains of Sliding Doors are multidimensional characters. Gerry doesn't really want to be involved with Lydia, but he is pathetically weak, as his best friend Russell (Douglas McFerran) tells him in pointed and amusing ways. Some of the best moments in Sliding Doors involve Gerry trying to prevent his relationships with Lydia and Helen from ripping his life apart. Similarly, Lydia is initially presented as the quintessentially nasty "other woman," but even she has her sympathetic moments, particularly when she becomes fed up with Gerry's indecisiveness.

Unfortunately, Sliding Doors only gets it half right. As in so many other romantic comedies, the hero and heroine are too perfect to be believed. James and Helen aren't nearly as interesting as Gerry and Lydia. In fact, Helen's entire character development seems to rest on two points: 1) she's really good at public relations, and 2) she's so veddy, veddy English--a fact writer/director Peter Howitt feels the need to emphasize repeatedly (through Helen's way of speaking), evidently because Gwyneth Paltrow herself is American. Similarly, James possesses the following traits: 1) he has a great sense of humor, 2) he's very sensitive, and 3) he likes Monty Python.

The actors ably make up for the deficiencies in the writing, however. Gwyneth Paltrow is quite talented, and therefore manages to lend some realism to Helen, despite the insufficient characterization. John Hannah himself is so likeable and funny that he makes James into a genuinely appealing person. In any case, the parallel storyline device is what carries Sliding Doors, and makes it worth seeing, regardless of the quality of the characters--which, fortunately, is pretty good.

Review © March 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1998 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

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