Of all the genres found in your typical mainstream offering, the romantic-comedy is perhaps the greatest opportunity for a filmmaker to reach mass audiences with deeper themes and philosophical reflection. And how appropriate that "Sliding Doors", the first directorial effort from Peter Howitt, has all the trappings of your prototypical romantic-comedy, only with a metaphysical twist. Though this type of film has been done before, most notably by Krzysztof Kieslowski in "Three Colors: Red" and "Blind Chance", never has it been in such a mainstream-accessible package.
I had a dreadful day... I got sacked... and so did you.
The story begins with Londoner Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow, last seen in "Great Expectations") being fired from her job in a public relations firm for 'borrowing' the last four bottles of beer in the office. Shocked at her sudden dismissal, she makes her way back home via the Tube. In a twist worthy of any Star Trek episode, Helen's life splits into two divergent paths, the outcome of the train's sliding doors-- in one reality, Helen manages to slip through the doors before they close, and in the other, the doors slide shut and she misses the train. From this point on, the film clearly distinguishes between the two possible paths of Helen's life. The one that catches the train (Helen A) returns home early to find her writer boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) in bed with Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn), an old flame. On the other hand, the one that missed the train (Helen B) arrives home after Lydia has left, and is unaware of Gerry's infidelity. The film continues in a like fashion, juxtaposing the chaotic change arising from one insignificant event. Helen A, in a fit of empowerment, builds her own successful PR business, and becomes enamored with James (John Hannah), a witty and talkative man with a penchant for quoting Monty Python. Meanwhile, the unemployed Helen B sinks further into hopelessness as she is reduced to waiting tables while Gerry and Lydia continue their clandestine affair.
C'mon, if you don't drink your fatty drinks you'll never achieve quality cellulite.
Howitt masterfully handles the material, jumping back-and-forth between both tracks of Helen's life, without creating confusion for the audience. The transitions are seamless and well-constructed, with the two Helens placed into similar surroundings and circumstances, only in a different context-- for example, on one track, Helen cheers James on during a rowing competition, while in the other, Helen watches the race in a disinterested manner, having never met James. Furthermore, Howitt not only shows the startling contrasts between the two Helens, but he also clues us in to the unexpected similarities-- even though Helen A has more of a 'fairy tale' experience compared to her less fortunate counterpart, her path is just as uneven and tumultuous. And at the film's close, when Helen's divergent paths re-converge, albeit in a hackneyed manner, Howitt gives the audience the final metaphysical twist in a thought-provoking film.
For goodness sake, Jerry. I asked you a simple question. No need to turn Woody Allen on me.
However, despite the heavy pondering on the transcendental, "Sliding Doors" still manages to please in the romantic-comedy department. With its snappy and amusing dialogue, and its study of the romantic process, this bubbly film performs superbly as a 'date picture'. Performances are also strong all around, with Paltrow leading the pack by playing two characters, both as the strong but emotionally-vulnerable Helen, as well as her insecure and exploited counterpart. Hannah also does well in bringing across the charming self-conscious demeanor of James, whereas Lynch is perfectly cast as the awkward adulterer. Finally, Tripplehorn vamps it up as the malicious and delicious villainess of the picture.
I'm a woman, we don't say what we want. But we reserve the right to be pissed off if we don't get it!
Because of its complex narrative, Howitt spent a long time shopping this film around before he could get it made-- but it was worth the wait. "Sliding Doors", while being delightful to watch with its easy mix of sentimentality and melodrama, manages to fascinate as well with its heady examination of fate, destiny, and the possibilities that we all face.
Remember what the Monty Python boys always say.
'Always look on the brighter side of life'?
No... 'nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!'