Saturday 20 February 2021

Movie Review: Sliding Doors (1998)

A romantic comedy-drama with parallel "what if" narratives, Sliding Doors offers two stories and not unexpectedly shortchanges both.

In London, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) is fired from her public relations job. On her way back home, two alternative realities are presented: Helen either just makes it onto a subway train before the sliding doors close, or doesn't.

In the scenario where she makes the train, Helen walks in on her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) having sex with his secret lover Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Distraught, she relocates to the apartment of her best friend Anna (Zara Turner) and makes a new start: with a fresh hairdo she launches her own PR firm. She also meets and starts to fall in love with James (John Hannah), who works hard to win her heart but has personal issues of his own.

In the alternative where Helen misses the train, she survives a near-mugging and only finds inconclusive evidence of Gerry's infidelity. She picks up two part-time jobs to make ends meet as Gerry pretends to work on his novel while juggling both Helen and Lydia in his life. But Lydia demands a commitment and starts to sabotage Gerry's secrecy to force the issue.

Presenting two completely different outcomes triggered by a split-second fateful encounter with sliding train doors is a potentially worthwhile gimmick to enliven an otherwise standard rom-com. Writer/director Peter Howitt visually helps to clarify which parallel universe each scene is in, first with a small band-aid (the result of that attempted mugging) then a new hairdo. But otherwise and beyond the obvious you'll-never-know-how-things-could-have-turned-out lessons, Sliding Doors trips over the limitations of its own construction and yields two half-baked stories.

Overall, too much of Helen's life in both universes is dedicated to obsessing about men. The miss-the-train narrative is particularly weak and underdeveloped. Helen exhausts herself with two part-time jobs, and the attention switches to horrid boyfriend Gerry, by far the worst character in the movie, and his increasingly desperate attempts to keep his two lovers apart. Helen becomes a static observer and sorry victim in her own movie.

The make-the-train story is marginally better, allowing Helen to deal with her grief and attempt a fresh start, but new and too-good-to-be-true love interest James keeps a secret for the sole and contrived purpose of introducing predictable late drama.

The London locations are quaint without drifting into touristy terrain, and the music soundtrack is discerning. The performances are seviceable but never memorable, Paltrow content with doe-eyed mannerisms. John Lynch and Josh Hannah are undistinctive, and Jeanne Tripplehorn is frequently over-agitated. Zara Turner as Helen's best friend Anna adds welcome feistiness.

Despite the possibilities, both sides of Sliding Doors lack polish.

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