For those of us who love the idea of romantic comedies, hope springs eternal, no matter how many times we find that, after the lights go up, we've been screwed again. It's gotten to the point where it's a relief that a lightweight, glossy little picture like "Sliding Doors" -- inoffensive, based on a dumb premise, scoring about 6 out of a possible 10 on the witty-banter scale -- is at least entertaining enough to keep you amused for an hour or two.
Howitt's movie (he also wrote the script) is pleasantly ramshackle: It doesn't give us clever plot twists so much as bumper-car fits and starts. The picture's sense of movement is something akin to taking a mundane route to work and finding that sometimes even mild daily adventures -- like sharply rounding a corner and clumsily muttering, "Sorry!" to the person you almost plowed into, or laughing just a little when you end up doing the old "shall-we-dance" routine with a stranger -- can give a bit of shape and texture to your day. Howitt aims low, asking simple questions about everyday life: What's the difference between missing the train you ran for and just barely catching it? What's it like to work your tail off in a restaurant, and how does it compare to busting your ass at your own PR firm? How does it feel to go home to a lover who's distracted and distant, and how does it feel to connect effortlessly with your sweetheart at the end of the day? He doesn't illuminate any great truths; the sheer ordinariness of it all is what's pleasing.
"Sliding Doors" is built on a flimsy contrivance: A young Londoner, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), arrives on Monday morning at her job at a tony PR firm, only to be immediately fired. Dejectedly she heads for the Tube, to return to the flat she shares with her boyfriend, unpublished lazy novelist Gerry (John Lynch, a good actor who's too often caught looking slack-faced and stricken here), who, unbeknownst to her, has been trysting regularly with an ex-girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn, overdoing a role that's cartoonishly bitchy to begin with). She runs for the train and just misses it -- or does she? Because suddenly, we hear a magical-sounding plink of strings, like an angel's harp, and we see Helen tread back over the platform and back up the stairs, the previous sequence run in reverse. She's split into two people, one of whom this time makes the train -- and meets a handsome stranger on board, and catches her boyfriend in bed with the other woman. The other Helen misses the train, and, thanks to a maddening jumble of events, returns home just after the mistress has left, to live life as usual with the boyfriend she doesn't know is deceiving her.
The rest of the movie cross-cuts between the lives of Helen 1 and Helen 2: Helen 1, who missed the train, takes two jobs, one as a waitress and one delivering sandwiches, to support herself and her shiftless beau. Helen 2 confronts the shiftless beau, moves out, gets her hair cut and dyed into a fetching new 'do, starts her own business and tentatively takes up with James (John Hannah), the charming stranger she met on the train she just managed to catch.
The big question that hovers over "Sliding Doors" is: How will this woolly plot resolve itself? The wrap-up is a disappointment -- an easy, facile way out that breaks faith with the audience. (The plot is so wacky to begin with, there's no need for such a predictably melodramatic ending.) Yet it's not so much the tale itself as the slippery interplay between characters that makes "Sliding Doors" enjoyable. Paltrow -- a stiff, remote actress in every role except that of Estella in the lovely "Great Expectations" -- is surprisingly likable here. She's still cool and aloof, but also breezy and insouciant, and she's not above breaking out in a toothy grin when her new love makes a silly joke. Most important, she never lets herself melt into an insecure puddle just to win our sympathy, the way so many of today's romantic-comedy heroines do. She's not set up to play on female insecurities, to make women feel better about their own low self-esteem and lack of will. Her vulnerability is telegraphed in sharp flashes, sometimes in the very brittleness of her line readings -- not in self-indulgent mooniness or cheap crying fits.
As Russell, Gerry's uncle and pal, Douglas McFerran shows a ruddy, chortling kind of good humor. When Gerry bends his ear in a pub, bemoaning the confusion he feels trying to juggle both a girlfriend and a mistress, Russell, instead of offering serious advice, howls with laughter. He's the movie's funniest and most logical character: The only way to make sense of Gerry's romantic travails and hand wringing is to treat them as a pathetic comedy routine.
But it's Hannah, as James, who keeps the movie spinning -- despite the fact that his character is aggressively overwritten. As Howitt has conceived him, James is the winking, twinkling, cutie-pie funny guy: His tablemates crumple with laughter at his spot-on Monty Python imitations ("Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"), and he courts Helen over milkshakes at a modest diner, even though he's a big-money business guy. Howitt seems to think he's invented every woman's dream dude: somewhat nerdy but also mildly athletic, always there for a larf and a snog, the kind of fellow who probably still likes to sleep with his teddy bear. (Howitt doesn't seem to realize that in real life, most smart single girls know that a guy who quotes Monty Python lines ad nauseam is likely to be the kind of guy who bites his toenails -- or worse.)
Miraculously, Hannah -- who played Simon Callow's lover in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and who, reciting a W.H. Auden poem in the funeral scene, delivered one of that movie's few genuine moments -- saves the role from caricature. His great charm comes not from the words his character is given (most of which are dorky) but from his unstudied off-handedness, and the way his eyes crinkle up when he smiles. He's the perfect counterbalance to Paltrow's ice princess, who sometimes seems to be all sharp elbows and flat midriff. He lends her a softness and a slight oddball craziness that she desperately needs.
"Sliding Doors" riffs on the kinds of questions that occasionally nag all of us: What would have happened if I'd arrived on the scene 10 minutes earlier -- or 10 minutes later? What would have happened if I'd said "X" instead of "Y"? But the most crucial thing that happens in "Sliding Doors" takes place in the first 15 minutes, when James and the original Helen find themselves on an elevator and he picks up the earring she's absent-mindedly dropped. They don't officially meet until later, but by the time the doors have closed on them, their fate is sealed, and it's a good thing, too. Monty Python routines or not, he's the kind of guy you'd hate to see slip through the cracks.