WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Sacked PR executive Helen’s day to forget takes a bizarre turn when she both catches and misses her tube train home. In one reality she catches her boyfriend Gerry cheating with an ex and makes drastic changes to her life, meeting the charming but not entirely honest James; in the other, Gerry gets away with it, leaving Helen in the dark.
The term ‘high concept’ is often used in a derogatory sense, applied to films with bizarre premises like Twins or Snakes on a Plane where the title says it all. However, the term can also used with reference to more highbrow films such as Groundhog Day, where the overarching idea is not only more measured but also capable of producing an intelligent script and provoking philosophical debate. In theory, Sliding Doors, a film about a single and seemingly inconsequential moment causing a life to head in two contrasting directions, should fall squarely into the latter category: then again, in theory, Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive at the same time.
Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the London-based ex-PR person in question, conveniently sacked for ‘borrowing’ vodka from work for a party whilst her stay-at-home boyfriend, supposed novelist Gerry (John Lynch), is conducting an affair with his American ex Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Dejectedly heading for the tube station, we see Helen going down the stairs twice: in the first reality, she catches the train, reluctantly talks to smart-aleck Scot James (John Hannah), and walks in on Gerry and Lydia, later seeking comfort in drink and her friend Anna (Zara Turner). In the second, Helen is involved in an attempted mugging (so gains a distinguishing plaster on her head) and by the time she has got home Lydia has left, allowing Gerry to cover his tracks.
‘First’ Helen (the one without the plaster) decides, with James’s assistance, to get her life in order and helpfully equips herself with a short, blonde haircut to face the world with. She starts her own PR company and hits it off with James, who unfortunately has his own complications with a sick mother and a secret wife, whilst Gerry misses her dreadfully and tries to win her back. Meanwhile, ‘Second’, dowdy Helen has to be content with low-paid sandwich delivery and waitressing jobs while Gerry carries on his affair with a dirty weekend in Dorset, not even listening when Helen tries to tell him she’s pregnant. While ‘Unlucky’ Helen eventually discovers Gerry’s secret, ‘Lucky’ Helen – pregnant with James’s child – discovers the existence of Claudia. Whichever reality she’s in, there is no way of escaping tragedy, but fate has a strange way of working itself out.
If this makes Sliding Doors sound complicated, fret not: for writer and director Peter Howitt arranges his scenes with enough skill and differentiation that it is always clear which version of Helen we are watching (follow the hair, essentially). What’s less clear is why the dual story idea exists; I don’t mean how it comes about – it’s a film, I can deal with fantasy – but what purpose it’s meant to achieve, given that a) the event that determines Helen’s future is so arbitrary, b) not to give the game away, but both versions end up in similar predicaments, and c) the final scene with its ‘spooky’ dialogue adds nothing to our understanding of the film. You certainly don’t feel that anyone has learnt anything, the whole point of Groundhog Day. If the two parallel timelines had repercussions on each other throughout the film, Sliding Doors could have been fascinating and complex in the manner of a romantic Final Destination: but they don’t, so it’s not.
What remains are two stories, each involving the same characters, that play out as more or less standard, or rather sub-standard, romantic comedy dramas. In one, Gerry is tortured by the affair he’s carrying out and wants to get rid of Lydia, though his weak will (and Lydia’s strong will) force him into ever more farcical positions. In the other, Gerry is tortured by the break-up and also loses Lydia, whilst Helen and James fall in love, the waters muddied by Claudia, the secret wife. Neither story is really strong enough to stand on its own and the pair only just about work in parallel.
Unfortunately, Howitt’s script is light on jokes, with swearing taking their place on most occasions, and his sitcom-strength lines are delivered weakly by a generally unimpressive cast. Paltrow and her accent are both okay, though never really sympathetic, but Tripplehorn is just mean and it’s totally inconceivable that either of them would find anything charming about Lynch’s lazy and idiotic Gerry, who isn’t helped by mocking friend and unpleasant cipher Russell (Douglas McFerran).
Also, although John Hannah is a good actor and strong screen presence, he is by no means a romantic lead; therefore, the film basically boils down to a host of unconvincing relationships not leavened by much in the way of frivolity (whoever wrote the tagline ‘Romance was never this fun’ must have been in some pretty lousy relationships).
Discovering the flaws in Sliding Doors is a pity as the first time I watched it, the illusion that the film’s structure was brilliant, innovative and meaningful carried me through the entire story. In truth, it’s not remotely on a par with the best of high concept films – silly or otherwise – and isn’t even the equal of the Britcom (excuse the phrase) favourites such as Four Weddings and a Funeral that it so badly wants to be compared with. Still, if you are coming to it for the first time, there’s just about enough going on to pass 99 minutes without getting bored, mostly because you’re waiting for the point to arrive. Sadly, it never does.