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'Sliding Doors' of Perception

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 1998

  Movie Critic


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

Director:
Peter Howitt
Cast:
Gwyneth Paltrow;
John Hannah;
John Lynch;
Jeanne Tripplehorn;
Zara Turner;
Douglas McFerran;
Paul Brightwell;
Nina Young;
Virgina McKenna
Running Time:
1 hour, 45 minutes
PG-13
For sexual situations and lots of delightfully British vulgar slang
"Sliding Doors" is very nearly the perfect romantic comedy, which is precisely why some people will hate it. We all know the type: that cynical pessimist who, no matter what, refuses to believe that the right guy or gal is out there, just waiting to be bumped into on the subway or the elevator. The good news is this is the lightest, brightest and tightest film confection to come down the date pike in quite some time. But that's just not enough for the curmudgeons out there, is it? They want sinew, they want heft, not giddy, effervescent zest. To heck with them.

Tired though it may be, the theme (that such a thing as romantic destiny exists) is given a jolting jump-start in Peter Howitt's smart, tart and unconventional film. An actor known primarily to British audiences from his many television, stage and film roles in England, Howitt has made an auspicious debut with a sharply written, cleverly conceived-and above all funny-exploration of fate and the paths we choose (or ignore) every day.

Speaking of days, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) is having a very bad one. Sporting long, chestnut hair and a surprisingly believable British accent, Paltrow's Helen has just been fired and, to make matters worse, is about to miss her subway train. By seconds. If only that child hadn't blocked her way on the stairs, she would have caught the ride.

Rewind. Helen bounds up the stairs-backward-and starts over. This time, there's no obstacle and she reaches the train just in time to squeeze between the sliding doors. The train pulls out of the station, with Helen aboard.

But wait a minute. The first Helen is still standing on the platform, cursing her bad luck and timing. Is the Helen that just pulled out of the tube station only a product of wishful thinking, a figment of the other's imagination? "I can't help thinking, what if I'd caught that bloody train," muses the original Helen, as she trudges off to hail a taxi.

At this point, the film boldly throws all convention to the wind and plays this strange conceit for all it is worth. The two separate plots continue simultaneously, constantly switching back and forth between the dual tracks as the story lines diverge more and more radically. It may not sound like a workable concept-such multi-tasking demands a lot of effort on the part of the audience-but Howitt's sure hand and head for structure make the gimmick work. It also helps that one Helen has a gash on her forehead, and later a new hairstyle, making it easier to distinguish the two interwoven plots.

What transpires next is complicated, but suffice it to say that Helen (the one that caught the train) arrives home to catch her philandering live-in boyfriend (John Lynch) in bed with another woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn), while the other Helen, delayed in her commute by chance, just misses this betrayal. The two films in one-enabling the audience to know something that the heroine dimly suspects but has not yet discovered-spiral around each other creating the misunderstandings of a classic French farce, only in this thoroughly modern update the farcical elements are generated by cell phones, home pregnancy test kits and the British Telecom equivalent of "* 69."

In the meantime, Helen No. 1 is stuck with her lying beau, while her alter ego has met another man, played by the impossibly charming Scottish actor John Hannah. He's so perfect, so dashing, so right for her, that every woman (and probably many of the men) in the audience will be thinking, "Why can't I meet someone like that?" Of course, he's only make-believe. Or is he?

The real miracle is that Howitt never loses control of these double lives. Just as fantasy enriches real life, and reality grounds our daydreams, each story line has something to say about the other. Ultimately, the roads begin to converge until they fuse back into one in a resolution that should not only make you smile but think.

What keeps this bifurcated contrivance from collapsing from the weight of its own cleverness is the witty and wise insights it provides into the natural and, I dare say, universal proclivity to overlook the unpleasantness of our real lives while at the same time yearning for-and believing in-something better.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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