Sliding Doors (1998) 1:39
directed by Peter Havitt
starring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Zara Turner, Douglas McFerrin, Jeanne Tripplehorn
That wasn't all as bad as I was expecting, really.
A romantic comedy (of sorts) that makes decent use of a very gimmicky, high-concept structure: Helen (Paltrow) is in a train station and two divergent paths of consequence develop contingent on a single event: she misses her train, or she makes it in time. In the one where she just makes it, she comes home in time to catch her boyfriend, Gerry (Lynch) getting humped by Lydica (Tripplehorn) and she later on hooks up with a talkative bloke named James (Hannah). In the other one, she doesn't find out until the very end. The former line of consequence is definitely the more engaging one, if only because of the presence of John Hannah, who is wonderful in this. I wouldn't exactly say he steals the show, but very nearly so. He is just such a shining energy when he's onscreen that it's no wonder Paltrow is charmed by him. Very much credit is due to the screenwriter (also Peter Havitt) who has written such nice, witty lines for Hannah's character, for it is only him, more or less, who actually makes the movie a comedy (well, him and Douglas McFerrin as Russell, the cheating boyfriend's best mate; although he doesn't have much screen time, which I think is a mistake because he is the only other really lively thing about this movie) and without whom the movie would be, perhaps not dreary, but less entertaining to be sure.
Paltrow is kind of cold, but fine otherwise. She doesn't have a comic part, but I think I'd like her better as a comic actress. I don't know. SHe needs a little kick to her. She can be kind of a bland cipher, as she kind of is here. Her cheating writer-boyfriend is kind of flavorless too.
I expected the narrative to unfold in bigger chunks than it did. Chunks meaning the two paths of story, whcih were very well integrated, more so than what I had been imagining when I first heard what the structure was like. I envisioned larger, more self-contained hunks of story counterpointed against one another, several scenes at a time. Here, Havitt flits between them, weavign them densely close together, cutting from one to the other and back again often in the middle of a scene. He's able to do this because of a decision the first Paltrow makes to cut and dye her hair a different color after breaking up with her cheating boyfriend, so each timeline has its own visual hook. I like his way better than mine.
There was one superfluous love scene that I thought could go. Although I admit I think that about most Hollywood sex scenes. Who needs em? More so because it wasn't there for any effect (even a titilating one would have been fine with me, though not in this movie perhaps) just to convey the information that, yes, indeed these two characters have gone to bed together. That's something I find incredibly irritating. Not out of prudishness but because I don't understand why that information always has to be conveyed that way. It's an easy way to do it, I suppose.
I have no problem with the first sex scene in the movie, when Paltrow catches her boyfriend cheating on her, because I think it's simply more effective when we actually see them fucking, as she does, and see everyone's reactions when they're busted. That's fine. But the second sex scene, after Paltrow and Hannah first kiss, they hop in the sack and we see them in the sack together, a visual cliche that I am always annoyed by, unless, as I said, there's some reason to show it that way, and showing some nipple for a dirty thrill is reason enough usually. But here there was no nudity, no intention to shock or tease or arouse. I think it could've, should've been cut and the information gotten across some other way.
Which brings me to another thing: the director, Peter Havitt I think is a better screenwriter than director. I generally think it is a common director's conceit that they can write, but here it is the reverse. What's up on the screen, visually, just isn't very interesting to look at. Havitt just doesn't have much of a compositional eye. On the other hand, he has a fine touch with actors and he gets pretty good performances out of all of them, even the ones you don't really feel are too good, like the cheating boyfriend. Also, he has a good handle on pacing, even with such an unorthodox structure as there is here, which I'm not sure would make pacing easier or harder...but whichever, he handles it with skill.
I feel like if I totally let loose complaining about how bland the director was I might sound like I didn't enjoy the movie. On the contrary, however, I rather liked it. It was funny and sweet. It was well written and has at least one very good performance in it (that would be Hannah's) and good minor roles (Russell, the best mate of the cheating boyfriend, seen mostly at a table in a pub, who is just getting such a kick out of all Gerry's woman troubles, provides some moments) and it made mewant to do exactly what romantic comedies are supposed to make you want to do: fall in love.
Or maybe I'm just drunk and lonely.
Okay, maybe, but I still think this movie's kind of charming. Perhaps it doesn't have charm anywhere near the atomic magnitude of, say, Love Me Tonight, but it made me laugh and it made me wish I wasn't watching it alone.
One thing though: I didn't really like the ending. Both blonde Helen (the one who catches Gerry in the sweaty act) and brunette Helen have accidents (the former is hit by a car, the latter falls down a flight of stairs, both of whom do so more or less because of their boyfriends) and blonde Helen dies while brunette Helen recovers and, having now also found out the truth about Gerry, wants no part of his lame ass. She then meets James in the elevator, he picks up her dropped earring (which he did for blonde Helen in the other storyline) and their eyes meet, with a look of deja vu and then the movie is over. The accidents feel contrived and out of place in teh movie that, apart from an early attempted mugging, is the only physical violence in the film. It just feels like it was borrowed from some other movie. Too much melodrama. And why did the Helens get pregnant? Just so they can both lose their babies in their accidents? What the fuck? So their unknowing boyfriends could hear from the nurse that the 'baby has been lost'? I don't like it. It has no place in the movie and is just tossed in there for maudlin effect.
Jeanne Tripplehorn is good, if a bit mawkish and soap opera-ish as the demented psycho jealous possessive 'other woman'. She has only one single scene (where she's howling in the hotel room after stubbing her toe while Gerry's on the phone with Helen) that shows off the lonely and hurt dimension of her character, and her frustration with this guy who'll fuck her, but won't leave his girlfriend for her, only that one scene to keep her from being an utter cariacature. Manipulative, jealous, selfish, mean---a real American (only one in the movie) cunt-rag. She's mostly just grating and annoying when she's on screen, but she at least does that well.