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A Tale of Two Endings

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 1998

  Movie Critic

Sliding Doors
Gwyneth Paltrow stars in "Sliding Doors." (Miramax)

Peter Howitt
Gwyneth Paltrow;
John Hannah;
John Lynch;
Jeanne Tripplehorn;
Zara Turner;
Douglas McFerran;
Paul Brightwell;
Nina Young;
Virgina McKenna
Running Time:
1 hour, 45 minutes
For sexual situations and language
Similar fates but two different pathways await the blithe heroine of "Sliding Doors," a bouncy romantic fantasy of alternative realities determined by the slide of a subway door.

Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), a swan-necked, delicate-boned London publicist, is having a very bad day. She breezes into the office ready to spin the latest political crisis into triumph or irrelevance or whatever else the media will buy. Alas, she discovers she's been sacked for making off with three bottles of vodka.

She trudges toward the subway, fuming that the vodka was the perfect excuse for the evil white males who have had it in for her. She plans an evening of commiseration at home with her sleazy boyfriend, Gerry (mopey John Lynch).

She arrives at the station platform just as the train doors slide shut and is left moping at the station. She is subsequently mugged and taken to the hospital for stitches. Finally she makes it home to find Gerry, a struggling novelist, just getting into the shower.

But what if Helen did make the train, met a swell bloke, James (John Hannah), and got home in time to catch Gerry in bed with his former American girlfriend (shrewish Jeanne Tripplehorn)?

Peter Howitt, an English actor making his directorial debut, pursues Helen down both pathways without resorting to trippy special effects or otherworldly humbug. "It's a Wonderful Life" certainly handled the situation more magically. Here, the different stories are separated at birth with the simplest of physical devices.

The Helen who misses the train falls into a funk, takes two jobs to support that louse Gerry, and has limp, lifeless brown hair to match her mood. The Helen who catches the train she goes on to have her hair cut short and bleached blond, open her own public relations firm and fall for tender, funny, self-supporting James.

(The lesson: Never underestimate the impact of a make-over.)

"Sliding Doors" is frothy stuff, far more complicated in structure than in content. The dual narratives don't interlock; they alternate as if the filmmaker were a child pulling petals off daisies. Only the refrain isn't exactly "he loves me, he loves me not."

Howitt's premise ultimately has to do with female empowerment, for Helen's alternate futures finally dovetail, and in both she must wise up and take charge of her future.

Paltrow, a fair reminder of Audrey Hepburn, glides through the film without the slightest effort. Hannah (he was the gay lover in "Four Weddings and a Funeral") is hardly a worthy love interest. But Hugh Grant has a ruined career, so Hannah will have to do.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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