By Michael Gray
SLIDING DOORS. A Mirimax Films and Paramount Pictures release. Directed by Peter Howitt. Starring John Lynch and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The directorial debut of English actor Peter Howitt is a study of destiny and chance as slender and slight as its lead actress, Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow plays Helen, an executive who works at a PR firm in central London. She lives with her boyfriend, Gerry, a struggling novelist played by John Lynch, she commutes on the subway to work, and she’s not very punctual. Her life takes a dramatic change in direction when she turns up late for work one day to find herself fired for swiping a few bottles of vodka from the office booze supply.
In the subway station, stunned by the sudden loss of her job and trying to get home to tell her boyfriend the bad news, she steps onto the platform of the films’ central conceit: it’s one of those “what if” stories that sends the main character in two separate directions, caused by a circumstance of timing. In one version, she misses the tube train, because the sliding doors, in the title role, close as she’s trying to board. In the other version, she boards the train a split second before the doors close, and her life goes off on a completely different tangent.
In the boyfriend role, Lynch plays that familiar rogue, the pretend writer who is supported by the well-paid girlfriend while he allegedly works on his monumental novel. What he’s really doing is rolling and tumbling with his ex, the charmless Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn), during the day, while Helen works at the office. This arrangement unravels when Helen gets fired. The Helen who made it through the sliding doors gets home early enough to catch Gerry in flagrante delicto with Lydia. So she ends the relationship, moves out of the flat to stay with her best friend Anna (Zara Turner), and mopes about hoping that Gerry will call.
The Helen who missed the train takes a lot longer to get home and finds Gerry basking in the afterglow, and everything appears as it should be on the domestic front. Lydia has left already, so it takes Helen in this strand of the film a lot longer to find out what’s really going on. The two stories switch over and back like a leaden metronome for the next hour and a half, climaxing with both versions of Helen getting involved in accidents so ludicrous that anyone still awake in the audience will guffaw loudly enough to disturb those who fell asleep.
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Lynch does his best in his role as the weak-willed Gerry. He’s so terrified of bossy Lydia that he never seems to be enjoying his wild affair. His best mate, Russell, considers Gerry’s life to be a morality-free zone, and finds Gerry’s complex trysts very entertaining, a perception that the audience will envy. Less entertaining still is the chatty Scotsman (John Hannah) who pursues and seduces Helen as she feebly tries to get over Gerry. His sense of humor is so stale that he quotes Monty Python dialogue at her like a demented teenage geek to drag a laugh out of the dismal creature. He seems like a nice chap at first, then an unspeakable swine, then not such a bad bloke after all. Lots of crying in the rain happens as they try to sort things out.
Paltrow’s flyweight performance manifests so little personality difference between the hapless Helen who hasn’t found Gerry out yet, and the angry Helen who moves out on him, that it’s a little confusing sometimes for us viewers to figure out which story we’re watching. Her pal Anna helps us out here by giving Helen a new hairdo. Thereafter, Helen’s parallel destinies are color-coded by Clairol to give us Blonde Helen trying the single life and a new career with a bleached crop and her own PR firm,and Brunette Helen, delivering sandwiches by day and waitressing by night until the fog lifts and she finds out what Gerry is really up to when he says he’s going to the library. Neither version is more interesting than the other, but at least they’re easier to tell apart.
Paltrow’s star vehicle is stuck in neutral and going nowhere. The “what if” question that sets the film shuddering on its twin tracks could well be applied to the film itself. What if you go and see this film? You’ll be out of pocket by the best part of 10 bucks. While the film is mercifully short, you’ll still waste a 105 precious minutes of your life that you’ll never get back. Our destiny befalls us, and we delude ourselves if we think we’re in complete control of our lives. We don’t get to choose much, but at least we get to choose which films we go to see.