A tale of two Gwyneths.
It’s always a surprising toss up as to who has actually heard of the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy Sliding Doors. Seeing the movie when it first came out, I remember really responding to it, connecting with the themes and the emotional pull of each of the characters. Judging from the response however, it seemed (at least to me), that not many others felt the same way, despite the movie turning a nice small profit. Maybe the reason for any anonymity the movie may have had back in 1998 was due to the fact that its star appeared in four whole other movies released that year, including Great Expectations, Hush, A Perfect Murder and Shakespeare in Love. Sandwiched in there was Sliding Doors, which made its contribution in ensuring that everyone in the film world remembered 1998 as the year of Gwyneth. Except for Hush, all of those other films were bona fide hits, with Shakespeare in Love being the most visible thanks to Paltrow’s Oscar win. But while those titles have their admirers to this day, none of them have achieved the specific level of staying power that Sliding Doors continues to enjoy all these years later.
In Sliding Doors, Paltrow plays Helen, a content PR woman who has found herself suddenly fired from her job and single after catching her novelist boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) in their bed with his ex-girlfriend, Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). The events cause Helen to change her life and start fresh without any distractions, including and especially the witty and charming James (John Lynch). At the same time in an alternate storyline, the recently-fired Helen finds herself missing her train home and getting mugged before falling straight into Gerry’s cheating arms.
Sliding Doors succeeds as a romantic comedy quite simply because it doesn’t rely too heavily on the traditional rom com tropes which made the genre so popular. There are certainly some early versions of the meet/cute setup and the movie does feature more moments of Helen confiding in her girlfriend Anna (Zara Turner) about why James hasn’t called and/or whether or not he’s the right guy for her. The reason it’s so easy to look beyond those conventions is because of the trio of love stories being played out on the screen. The oldest (and perhaps most interesting is the one between Helen and Gerry. Yes, his behavior is inexcusable. He lets his girlfriend support him while he works on his novel and carries on an affair with former love Lydia. But there’s something about him and Helen together; a tenderness that cannot help but come through even if we know more than she does. Watching Gerry console the just-fired Helen with scotch, Groslch and Indian food can’t help but make us smile because he’s smiling at the fact that he’s able to make her smile. It may not be enough to make you root for them to stay together (that is decidedly not an option), but it does inject a bit of somberness to their parting.
By contrast, there’s every reason in the world for wanting the relationship between Helen and James to succeed. James is literally everything someone like Helen needs; he’s charming, smart, confident, cares about the people in his life, and most importantly, is completely taken by the movie’s heroine. Helen’s coming in to her own lines up perfectly with James’s sudden appearance in her life. Call it divine synchronicity or not, but everything was designed for James to meet Helen at this specific time in her life, when she needs a champion most. At the same time, Sliding Doors doesn’t paint their relationship as a man rescuing a woman, but rather as ta man who sees how amazing the woman in front of him is and can’t help but tell her so virtually every time he’s around her. Meanwhile, a third and final love story between Gerry and Lydia shows itself from time to time, but it isn’t revealed to have much in the way of substance until late in the film. While the pair are inevitably seen as the villains of Sliding Doors, it’s hard not to feel a bit sad for these two people who were once very much in love, but whose chance at something real and long-lasting seemed to have always fallen victim to timing. Even in their present situation, the writing is on the wall for both Jerry and Lydia…and they sadly know it.
But as much as Sliding Doors is seeped in romance, it’s the movie’s main hook of watching the main character in two different scenarios which makes it so compulsively watchable. Write/director Peter Howitt’s film does a good job of taking someone who is the epitome of an ordinary person and proves she’s so much more by showing the different lives she could lead. It’s that universal quality of Sliding Doors which is so invaluable. There is literally no one who watches the film who hasn’t at one point wondered what might have happened had they not gone on that trip, stayed at that job or perhaps even more simply, not answered that one phone call.
Although I’ve drawn comparisons to the postmodernist author Paul Auster a number of times in past reviews, I cannot help but do so again here. There’s a scene in Auster’s greatest work, “The New York Trilogy,” where a writer turned amateur detective is tasked with following a man he’s never met. Waiting at a busy train station, he sees a man he thinks might be the one he’s meant to follow quickly exit the station and turn the corner. Just as he is about to go after him, the detective sees another man emerge whom he is even more convinced is the one he’s meant to tail, which he does. It’s such a slight, but profound moment in the book which proves more consequential than one would think. Sliding Doors adopts this very Auster notion of fate, chance and destiny to tell it’s story about the path not taken; the “what ifs” and “if onlys” of life which haunt us all just enough to make us more ponderous than we thought we were. The movie makes us wonder even more because it visualizes it in such a vivid and enchanting way before it reminds everyone that we inevitably end up living the life we are meant to live.
The problems with Sliding Doors are tiny. In fact, apart from a couple of 90s cliche-ridden montages (seeing Helen change her hair and set up her new business feels more TV commercial than cinematic), this is a near-perfect film. So much of this has to do with the cast. Each of the players give their all to his or her character, making a case for them even if on the surface they might not seem to deserve one. At the heart of this is Paltrow’s performance which is full of whimsy, melancholy and that effervescent quality which made her Gwyneth. But it’s the themes of Sliding Doors which account for its vast lifespan. The idea of another you having ventured down a road that’s completely unknown is a concept full of curiosity, mystery and hope that connects with everyone, regardless of social experience. Everyone can account for at least one “sliding doors” moment in their lives which lingers in their minds. Ultimately though, the film’s aim isn’t to send its audience down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals, but rather to encourage those watching it to make the most out of the life in front of them.
Sliding Doors is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Shout Select.