"What if?" comedy-drama follows Paltrow's life down two paths
"Sliding Doors" is like an English, art house "Ally McBeal" episode with a little "Twilight Zone" tossed in.
An enchanting, obliging and romantic "what if?" story that trades on the precarious nature of what we call fate, this is more than a cute career vehicle for a rising star. It's a sentimental comedy, a fantasy and a subtle psychological musing on encouragement, environment and self-esteem.
The movie begins with a sunny Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) kissing her boyfriend good morning in bed then hurrying off to her job at a London public relations firm -- where she is immediately fired.
Distressed and dejected, she returns to the subway, heading home for some sympathy snuggles from the beau. Running toward the platform as her train's doors close, Helen's life forks into two different realities, and "Sliding Doors" follows them both.
In one existence she just barely makes the train, getting home in time to catch her bastard boyfriend Jerry (John Lynch, "Moll Flanders") in bed with another woman. But in the other, the train's doors close in her face, leading to a rotten karma domino effect, the crux of which is Jerry's continued philandering behind her back.
At this point, one would think "Sliding Doors" would get abstruse, or at the very least convoluted. But with a remarkably nimble narrative hand, director Peter Howitt navigates these two story streams and never loses the audience for a moment.
For the Helen who makes the train, discovering Jerry bouncing on a bawdy brunette ultimately serves as a liberating catharsis. She moves in with her attentive best friend, symbolically cuts and dyes her drab hair and meets a winsome, witty Mr. Right, played with categorical charm by John Hannah ("Four Weddings and a Funeral").
But the Helen who misses the train finds herself in a rut. Besides sustaining an increasingly indifferent relationship with Jerry, she can't seem to find a new job and ends up a victim of the Other Woman's scorn to boot.
By design we become attached to the single and empowered Helen, and in this role Paltrow is at her most beguiling. With Meg Ryan's persistent girlishness and Audrey Hepburn's classy countenance, she endears Helen to the audience with her burgeoning confidence and flirty affability.
The Helen who leaves Jerry for a new life has moments of stinging self-doubt, and the hesitant emotions in these scenes are refreshingly honest. But she also has the support of this clever, funny and encouraging suitor who helps her to found her own PR firm.
John Hannah is this movie's surprise delight. Like Rupert Everett in "My Best Friend's Wedding," he gets many of the movie's best lines as the devoted new love in Helen's life. But "Doors" is resplendent with small and incisively humorous roles, too. Jerry's abusive best friend recites a catalog of hilarious truths about the male species' sex drive and Jeanne Tripplehorn is positively wicked as the bitch mistress.
Colorful and energetic, "Sliding Doors" balances its two stories with such smooth dexterity that is has no problem even overlaping them occasionally, just for fun. And just when you begin to wonder how these increasingly dissimilar tales could possibly end, the movie takes a shockingly unexpected turn in the last reel.
While this is a fantastically original take on the romantic comedy, in all likelihood neither of these narratives would be sturdy enough to stand on their own. But buttressed on each other and on the wonderful performances of Paltrow and Hannah, "Sliding Doors" will be one of the most memorable films of 1998.