Recently I sat down to watch Sliding Doors because it was suggested to me by someone who knows I like romcoms with strange little twists. Approximately ten minutes after the movie started I found myself going, “Oh, oh that’s neat. I like that.”
The general idea of that statement is going to make up a lot of this review.
Sliding Doors (1998)
Plot: After being let go by her scumbag employers at a PR job, Londoner Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to catch the Tube (London’s subway) home. From here, the movie follows two parallel universes, one where she does catch the train, learns that her boyfriend is cheating on her, and reinvents herself, and one where she doesn’t catch the train, doesn’t learn that her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) is cheating on her, and has a generally really shitty time. We watch both of these stories unfold and discover how much of a difference a set of sliding doors (that’s the name of the movie!) can have on someone’s life.
As simple as this idea might be, I think it’s pretty damn cool. It’s especially interesting for a romantic comedy, given how linear movies in that genre tend to be. But for a parallel universe structure to work, as Roger Ebert points out in his review for the movie, all the story-lines involved need to be interesting enough on their own. Run Lola Run (1998), which came out less than four months after Sliding Doors, managed to have three separate timelines that were all interesting and added to each other. I can say that Sliding Doors has at least one that’s innately interesting, and one that’s…well, it’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as engaging.
Before getting into that though, I want to say a few words about how Sliding Doors works as a romantic comedy. The more interesting story, which is where she does catch the Tube, follows a fairly standard trajectory. Girl meets guy; girl and guy slowly become interested in each other; there’s a misunderstanding; they figure it out. All that stuff happens. But there are some nice touches that make this more interesting to watch.
First of all, Helen gets out of the funk caused by her cheating ex and job loss on her own terms. This was really pleasant to watch, as we genuinely feel that she is in control of her life. Yes, she gets help from her friend Anna, and yes she has a really cute storyline with the love interest, James (John Hannah), but the amount that Helen accomplishes on her own is pretty unique for the genre.
The other storyline is a bit harder to watch. Besides the fact that it doesn’t have James–and seriously, John Hannah is super, unbelievably delightful in this movie; he’s a scene-stealer–it’s also hard to see Helen deal with this guy that we all realize is a scumbag. The bulk of the storyline centers on Gerry trying not to get caught with his mistress. There’s a bit more going on here, but it’s way less interesting than the other one, which makes the movie feel a bit unbalanced. Neither universe is boring by any means, but I think one is a whole lot more interesting. Still, watching how fantastically well Helen’s life goes in one storyline while simultaneously seeing how bad it goes in the other certainly adds to the effect of both.
Either way, while Sliding Doors has a lot that stands out, it’s also very much so a typical romcom. The characters are stereotypical at best. James can do no wrong (even the misunderstanding doesn’t paint him in a particularly negative light), Gerry will be a terrible human being no matter what the circumstance, Anna will be a supportive but chiding best friend, etc. etc. And that’s all fine, of course. The story is still interesting enough. This is a movie that isn’t notably challenging or groundbreaking, but it’s damn fun and has enough innovations to make it work. The main difference between this and, say, Pitch Perfect, which I criticized for doing some things right and other things not so much, is that the differing levels of quality aren’t disparate. You don’t get stylistic whiplash in Sliding Doors, just the occasional feeling that things could’ve been done better.
My main gripe is with the ending, which I won’t spoil, but I will say tries way too hard to be deep and complex without having warranted doing so. If you’re gonna make a reasonably standard romantic comedy, fine, but then don’t go and try to make it a high-drama emotional piece in the last ten minutes. You can’t expect us to accept that this story has fairly uncomplicated characters and a similarly uncomplicated storyline, and then try to slap us in the face with something really difficult. It feels manipulative.
Still, overall Sliding Doors is a really fun and charming movie. Romantic comedies all have a pretty specific formula that they have to follow, so the key thing is to add enough of a unique flavor to make it not bland. Sure, the parallel universe idea could’ve been done a little better. The characters could have been more complex. But there’s something really enjoyable about romcoms and their conventions; hell, that’s the reason we watch them. The fact that Sliding Doors does some things outside of the formula is really refreshing and makes for a movie that, while not perfect, can definitely fulfill the needs of–and maybe even pleasantly surprise–fans of the genre.
(Also: first post less than a thousand words! WOO! Well, without this addendum it is, anyways.)