Sliding Doors Shut Quickly on A Good ConceptBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Lynch, John Hannah, Jeanne Tripplehorn
Written and directed by Peter Howitt
Five years ago, a small movie called Groundhog Day came out of nowhere and proved to be surprisingly good. In the era of high-concept movies ("Aliens try to conquer earth," "Arnold Schwarzenegger is pregnant," "Robin Williams in drag," etc.), the story of a man stuck in time and forced to re-experience one day over and over again was turned into a wonderful film, with humor, romance, and a healthy dose of thought-provoking subtext. A couple of years later, the same writer/director team made another movie - Multiplicity. Seemingly cut from the same cloth as Groundhog Day, this second movie proved to be a disappointment - not as funny, not as charming, mostly perfunctory in its appeal, mostly sitcom-ish (if such an adjective exists) in its jokes, and largely pointless.
All this has a direct bearing on Sliding Doors. This one seems to go for the same feel as Groundhog Day - a high-concept that puts a spin on the reality, done as a frothy romantic comedy, with a layer of serious subtext. Unfortunately, the result, while quite appealing for most of its running time, is ultimately quite forgettable.
A young public relations executive, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow, with a pitch-perfect British accent), rushes to make a subway train, but a little girl steps in her way. Helen loses one second, and the sliding doors close. Or: What if a girl doesn't get in her way, and Helen makes the train? And the twist - which I'm very much tempted to call a gimmick - is that the movie follows both plot lines, switching back and forth between the-Helen-that-made-the-train and the-Helen-that-didn't.
From the moment when the plot lines split, they start diverging. In one, Helen meets a nice guy on the train, gets home early, and catches her boyfriend with his mistress. In the other one, she is late, and nothing happens when she gets home.
The idea of minor circumstances tremendously impacting our lives is a great one, and the film manages to work a good deal of entertainment out of it. First-time writer/director Peter Howitt obviously has a lot of fun cross-cutting between the parallel stories, and he displays a great deal of deftness making clear to which story each moment belongs (at first, one Helen gets a bandage to distinguish her from the other one; later, they have different haircuts).
For about half of its running time, Sliding Doors is very welcome. Then it looses its spark. The novelty of following two stories at the same time wears off, and several things become painfully obvious. One of them is that neither of these two stories is interesting by itself. One Helen is trying to put her life together after discovering her boyfriend was cheating on her; another just mopes around, glumly suspecting something's wrong. Both of these plots are obvious and somewhat boring. Some sparks fly between Helen and James, the nice guy she meets on the train (John Hannah, from Four Weddings and a Funeral), but even this storyline soon loses any appeal, when it becomes clear that James is a very shallow character (not by the screenwriter's design), and all his charm comes from him quoting Monty Python - and not even different jokes, but one and the same, over and over again. When the running gag of a comedy is a borrowed quotation, it's sad indeed.
Despite this, the whole mood of romantic comedy still works quite well - the dialogue is well written (although it has way too many pop-culture references, ranging from aforementioned Monty Python to Seinfeld to Elton John), and the direction and acting are generally sharp. However, during the last ten minutes, Sliding Doors makes an attempt to turn into a serious drama, and this just destroys it. All of the whimsical mood is lost, and the drama by itself is not convincing enough (since it is caused by several lamely obvious plot devices).
After all is said and done, the thing that works best in Sliding Doors is its high-concept. While certainly interesting to follow, it's definitely not enough to make a mediocre movie into a good one. Go rent Groundhog Day instead - it works not only as a high-concept movie, but as a good movie as well.