Gwyneth Paltrow gets another chance to show off her letter-perfect English accent in Sliding Doors, an engaging romantic comedy that employs a rather novel narrative device: After introducing the main characters and setting up the basic story, the film splits into two separate but parallel plot lines. It's a twist reminiscent of Groundhog Day (1993), in which the lead character (played by Bill Murray) lives the same day over and over. In Sliding Doors the day doesn't repeat, it diverges, offering two very different paths for the film's heroine to follow.
And follow them she does. Helen (Paltrow), a hip English public relations executive, lives in London with her boyfriend Gerry (Irish actor John Lynch of Angel Baby and Some Mother's Son), a struggling novelist who, unbeknownst to Helen, is still seeing his ex-girlfriend Lydia (The Firm's Jeanne Tripplehorn). Helen gets to work one morning to find that she has been fired. Shocked and dismayed, she heads back home, arriving at the subway platform just as the train's sliding glass doors close. She drags herself back outside to hail a taxi -- and is mugged by a purse snatcher. By the time she finally makes it home that afternoon, Gerry is in the shower, apparently just starting his day.
But what if Helen hadn't missed that train? The action suddenly switches into reverse, the train awkwardly speeding backward out of the station and Helen backpedaling up the down staircase. Now the scene replays itself, but this time when Helen descends she arrives at the platform just in time to squeeze through the doors. She sits next to a friendly Scotsman (Four Wedding and a Funeral's John Hannah) who tries to cheer her up -- and she arrives home in time to find Gerry in bed with Lydia.
From this point the action jumps back and forth between the two scenarios. A scene about Helen number one -- the one who arrives home late and has no inkling she is being two-timed -- is followed by the parallel story of Helen number two, who leaves Gerry, moves in with her best friend, chops off her hair, and starts dating James, the Scot. The transitions are so smooth that the device never feels forced, and both stories benefit from unexpected plot developments. In one of many delightful twists, Helen and Lydia (scenario number one) cross paths when the conniving Lydia engineers a meeting with Helen, who has no idea who she is.
As one would expect, Helen pines for Gerry after leaving him. But James woos her patiently, and he is such a considerate, funny, open fellow that the audience can't help rooting for him. In fact the real charmer in this film is Scottish actor Hannah. Little-known in the United States, he proves an absolute delight here. Granted, he has some of the funniest lines, but it's his delivery that makes them work so well. He gives James a distinctive personality, something the other actors fail to provide.
Which isn't to say that the others aren't fun to watch; it's just that they come across as more familiar, less interesting types. The ubiquitous Paltrow -- who has starred in no less than three pictures released since January (Great Expectations, Hush, and Sliding Doors) -- has the voice and inflection of Minnie Driver (close your eyes and you see Driver) and the carefree air of a swinging-Sixties Carnaby Street "bird" (in the parlance of the day). She smiles too much but otherwise carries off the double role effectively. Tripplehorn nicely captures the shrewishness in Lydia, but it's a one-note performance. Lynch is the weakest link. An outstanding character actor who specializes in emotionally fragile roles -- Nothing Personal, Angel Baby, In the Name of the Father -- he is miscast in a frothy romantic comedy.
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As for the supporting cast, Zara Turner is wasted as Helen's best friend. A promising actress, she simply isn't given enough to do. Douglas McFerran, as Gerry's pub confidant, is allowed more leeway, and he imbues the role with great gusto and personality.
So inventive, confident, and accomplished is the production that it's a surprise to learn that Sliding Doors is the work of first-time director-screenwriter Peter Howitt, a successful actor in his native Britain who clearly has a whole new career ahead of him. Not only has he come up with a clever structure, but he seamlessly interweaves the intricate strands of the two stories. The witty dialogue elicits out-loud laughter, and with one notable exception he manages to avoid mawkishness and melodrama -- no mean feat given the potentially sappy material.
While dewy-eyed viewers may choose to see the story as a confirmation of the role that destiny and fate play in our lives, more levelheaded folks can simply enjoy the film at face value. And a movie that can appeal to romantics and rationalists alike is always welcome.
Written and directed by Peter Howitt. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, and Jeanne Tripplehorn.