Sliding Doors (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Look back at all the times in your life when there was a fork in the path to the future. Some sort of decision had to be made, and, for better or worse, it irrevocably altered the course of your existence. From time-to-time, everyone thinks about the roads not taken, and how things might have turned out if the choice had been different. Perhaps even more dizzying to contemplate is how a seemingly minor action -- catching the 10 am train, for example -- could have an equally profound, yet less obvious, impact. Maybe that's where you met your significant other, and, had you reached the platform just a few seconds later...

Film makers are no less fascinated by issues of destiny than anyone else, and that's why there's no shortage of movies about this subject. The best of the bunch were probably made by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who was obsessed with questions of fate and chance. These themes weave their way through many of his movies, including Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique, and the triptych of Blue, White, and Red. However, they are most explicitly examined in a 1981 film called Blind Chance, where Kieslowski presents the three different fates of one man after a minor action (missing or catching a train) changes the course of his life. In his autobiography, Kieslowski on Kieslowski, the director describes his attraction to the concept this way: "[The idea is] rich and interesting... that every day we're faced with a choice which could end our entire life yet of which we're completely unaware."

While this approach has been the fodder for several notable dramatic films (including, in a way, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life), Sliding Doors is the first romantic comedy to plumb its depths. The "road not taken" approach isn't just a plot device, either. Writer/director Peter Howitt expands upon both possible fates of a character after she just misses/catches a train. The audience watches, with ever-growing fascination, how this one event impacts upon every aspect of her life: her future career, where she lives, whom she loves, and whether she has a family. As her separate destinies diverge and then re- converge, she becomes two completely different individuals.

That woman is Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow as a long, dark-haired Brit. One day, after losing her job as an advertising executive, she decides to return home in the middle of the day. The scene of the pivotal moment is a train platform. In scenario #1, she just slips through the sliding doors before the train pulls out of the station. On board, she meets the cheerful, talkative James (John Hannah), a Monty Python fan who is taken with her beauty. Minutes later, in her flat, she walks in on her lover, Gerry (John Lynch), in bed with another woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In scenario #2, she misses the train and, shortly thereafter, is the victim of an attempted mugging. She doesn't meet James and fails to make it home in time to discover Gerry's infidelity. Juxtaposed one against the other, while sharing many places, cues, and characters, the two stories proceed in parallel from there.

On one level, for viewers who enjoy pondering the workings of fate, Sliding Doors can be viewed as a deep and wonderful experience. But, for those who just appreciate a romantic comedy characterized by solid acting, a script with a few twists, and a great deal of genuinely funny material, Sliding Doors still fits the bill. One of its most obvious strengths is that it can satisfy many different types of audiences -- those who demand something substantial from their motion pictures, and those who could care less.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that the acting, at least from three of the four leads, is solid. Paltrow, who does double duty as two Helens who are initially the same, yet gradually become much different, is the standout. She plays both of her roles effectively and believably -- the shy, insecure woman who stays with Gerry and the liberated, platinum-blond who severs the ties to her old life and embarks on a new career with a new man. John Hannah, known to most American viewers as the younger gay character in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is instantly likable. John Lynch, taking a break from movies about Ireland's troubles, does a good job presenting Gerry as a inept, selfish philanderer. Only Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays an over-the-top vixen, seems out of place. Her attempts at broad comedy are occasionally jarring, and it's occasionally difficult to see her Lydia as anything more than a plot element.

One member of the supporting cast deserves special notice. Douglas McFerran, who plays Gerry's best friend, Russell, is an absolute delight, stealing every scene that he's in. Part of this is surely because he is given the best lines in the movie. On one occasion, he has a marvelous monologue bemoaning how advances in the telecommunications industry have trapped men into a life of monogamy. On another occasion, while laughing at Gerry's plight with the women in his life, he comments, "Being with you makes the wait for the next episode of Seinfeld more bearable." But it's not all in the dialogue. McFerran tears into this part with relish; his performance becomes one of the most memorable aspects of a top-notch comedy.

This is the first feature film for Peter Howitt, and he approaches the task with unimpeachable aplomb. The script is shrewd and inventive, combining wit, romance, and intelligent melodrama into a crowd-pleasing whole. Sliding Doors grants more than just a good time at the movies, however. For those who are so inclined, its central theme offers an opportunity to ponder some of the more philosophical questions about the workings of the universe -- all while having a good time.

Sliding Doors (United States, 1998)

Director: Peter Howitt
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, John Lynch, John Hannah, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Douglas McFerran, Zara Turner
Screenplay: Peter Howitt
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Music: David Hirschfelder
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1998-04-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1