Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998)

Sliding Doors

I completely missed Sliding Doors when it was new, probably because I was fourteen at the time and only watched maybe a movie a year. Had never even heard of it until years later, then strangely kept encountering references to it everywhere from different sources. Much like Terminator for time travel paradoxes, it seemed to be a pop cultural touchstone for the concept of parallel universes, with its premise of alternately depicting the two paths a young woman's life could take, depending on whether or not she catches a train before its sliding doors close.

As I watched it, the first thing that really took me by surprise was that Gwyneth Paltrow plays British in the movie, which is set in London and features an otherwise nearly all-British cast, with the exception of Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays an American. It struck me as an odd choice to cast an American as the lead in a British production, but, come to think of it, I guess Gwyneth Paltrow kind of rose to stardom playing British in British productions. And, of course, she later married a Brit and lived for a while in London. I can't explain any of it, but, once past the initial shock, it doesn't detract from this film.

As was the case with Emma and Shakespeare in Love, Paltrow entirely carries the movie, gimmicky premise aside. Impressively, as the story proceeds along its two timelines, Paltrow develops two subtly distinct parallel performances—one a gullible young woman emotionally dependent on her cheating good-for-nothing boyfriend, and the other a still vulnerable but more liberated and adventurous soul after having dumped the cad. Jeanne Tripplehorn also gives a classic performance as the terrifying "other woman." Sadly, the male characters are, at best, forgettable—one a total douche bag, the other kind of a creeper.

The parallel universes concept is novel and generally well-executed, the movie shifting between timelines regularly enough to keep viewers engaged in a fun game of trying to track all the divergences. Unfortunately, neither timeline by itself is especially interesting. I occasionally had trouble keeping straight the chronologies, but then I realized that I didn't really care. The movie is, at its heart, a romantic comedy, and, even with its two-in-one format, its story comes across small and unremarkable. Although a surprisingly popular film among would-be philosophers (even including, regrettably, noted Christian apologist William Lane Craig, famous as that guy who routinely demolishes bestselling atheist authors in public debates), it largely wastes the opportunity to explore the depths of that "what if" question that haunts us at and after every crossroads in our one-way lives. The initial divergence is not the result of will or choice but of chance, and, over and over again, the only message the movie seems to contain is that the course of one's life is all up to chance. And it all culminates with a cheap "gotcha" ending, which draws the curtain on the experiment without really resolving the romantic comedy, thereby failing to satisfy on either count. Ultimately, the most interesting possibilities explored are Gwyneth Paltrow's two different hairstyles.

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