No matter how you slice it, Helen is having a bad day. She arrived at work at a London PR agency this morning to learn she’s been fired. And now, as she races to catch a subway train, one of two unpleasant experiences is just ahead.
If she makes it aboard the train already in the station, she’ll get home in time to catch her boyfriend in bed with his ex-girlfriend. If she doesn’t, she’ll be knocked down by a purse snatcher, have stitches over one eye, and come home to a boyfriend who’s rattled by the close call, but safe. Either way, though, Helen’s life is going to change.
Writer-director Peter Howitt’s cleverly conceived and superbly executed “Sliding Doors” is a romantic comedy about a girl and two hypotheses. When Helen, played with a tangy British accent by Gwyneth Paltrow, reaches the sliding doors of that train, the movie comes to an abrupt halt, announces its intentions of telling us two parallel stories, then proceeds with a seamless flow of interwoven details from each.
In Story A, Helen reacts to the sight of Gerry (John Lynch) and Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn) in a thrashing love tangle on her own bed by packing off to stay with her best friend Anna (Zara Turner). Anna will comfort Helen and give her good advice, like treating herself to a make-over, starting her own PR business and going out with James (John Hannah), the gentle, funny Scotsman she met on that otherwise ill-fated subway ride.
In Story B, Helen’s eye and her bruised ego will begin to heal, but Gerry will continue seeing Lydia, and Helen, in blind devotion, will double-up jobs as a waitress and a sandwich delivery girl in order to support him. Eventually, the clues will pile up that Gerry’s not getting a lot of writing done at home, and the relationship will reach the crisis point. But it’s later rather than sooner.
Howitt, a British actor making his debut as a filmmaker, could have taken his story into the hyperbolic reaches of fantasy and offended no one in Hollywood. Instead, he chose to tell two very human stories as they might actually develop. Helen is the same person in both tales, but the circumstances dictate different actions, and those actions create distinctly different rhythms and moods.
Story A is a lively romance, with Helen being lulled out of her funk by James, an infinitely more charming character than Gerry, who appears moping on the sidelines and hoping for a reconciliation. Story B is a low-keyed version of “Fatal Attraction,” where Lydia, a sexual predator with the subtlety of Madame Strap, is trying to get Gerry caught and liberated.
There’s a lot going on in both of these stories, and occasionally, events that occur at the same place and at the same time are played out both ways, back and forth. It may be Howitt’s greatest achievement that we’re able to keep the stories straight.
Paltrow is amiably convincing in her dual roles, and Hannah, who appeared in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” the movie with which “Sliding Doors” begs comparison, manages to rise above the conventional rescuer hero. Howitt’s missteps are all in the characters of Gerry and Lydia, and in the dreadful performances he elicited from Lynch and Tripplehorn.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: Sex and the discussion of it should keep this from younger eyes.
Gwyneth Paltrow: Helen
John Hannah: James
John Lynch: Gerry
Jeanne Tripplehorn: Lydia
Zara Turner: Anna
Douglas McGerran: Russel
Paul Brightwell: Clive
Nina Young: Claudia
Miramax Films and Paramount Pictures present, in association with Intermedia Films, a Mirage production, a Peter Howitt Film. Written and directed by Peter Howitt. Produced by Sydney Pollack, Philippa Braithwaite, William Horberg. Executive producers Guy East, Nigel Sinclair. Director of photography Remi Adefarasin. Production designer Maria Djurkovic. Music David Hirschfelder. Editor John Smith. Costume design Jill Taylor. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.