Written and directed by Peter Howitt
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn
Gwyneth Paltrow is the easiest kind of star to hate: likable, attractive and blond, the type who reduces people to their cattiest, most jealous impulses. The bitching reached its height after Paltrow won an Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love." Discussions everywhere (one of them in Salon's Table Talk) were conducted on the level of a catfight in a henhouse. People made fun of the fact that she cried, or that her father bought her the jewels Harry Winston had lent her for the ceremony. Anti-Gwyneth sentiment ran high: Some people condemned her because, being good-looking and wealthy and blond, she, you know, made women feel bad about themselves (just the approach to take with movie stars, who are usually more attractive than the rest of us -- deal with it). The pro-Gwyneth contingent often didn't even get around to discussing her acting. (Thanks for the sour persimmons, coz.)
Is Paltrow an actor? Yes, though it's silly to pretend that people have to be actors to be enjoyable in the movies. Part of what makes her fun to watch is that she's a charming, impossibly long-necked looker. When I saw Paltrow onstage in a production of "The Seagull" a few years ago, her lack of range and technique was obvious. But on-screen, her good performances haven't depended entirely on her charm. She has a scary affectlessness as the young hooker in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight," and she captured the melancholy coldness of Estella in Alfonso Cuarsn's superb updating of "Great Expectations," better than Jean Simmons did in David Lean's version.
As Helen in Peter Howitt's romantic fantasy "Sliding Doors," Paltrow gets to integrate her charm with coolly cutting sarcasm. From scene to scene the emotional temperature of her performance -- which ranges from withering indignation to clipped vulnerability to a sort of dry coquetry -- feels absolutely accurate. Helen is a young P.R. exec who's given the sack shortly after the picture begins. After missing a subway train she makes her way home to her boyfriend (John Lynch), a layabout would-be novelist whom Helen is supporting. She doesn't know he's spending more time rogering his ex (Jeanne Tripplehorn) than working on his magnum opus. Unable to find another advertising gig, Helen takes on a round of exhausting waitressing jobs to keep the money rolling in. It's a dreary existence. But Howitt intercuts it with an alternate reality in which Helen makes that subway train and takes a seat next to James (John Hannah), a Scottish charmer who figures more and more in her life, especially when she arrives home early and catches her unfaithful boyfriend red-handed.
It's one of the functions of movies to let us wallow a little in romantic fantasy (sad as well as happy, especially sad), and there are few movies that are just good enough to let us do that without feeling too embarrassed. "Sliding Doors" doesn't turn into gush until the dual melodramatic finales. And it's blessed with a sense of humor until then (especially in the scenes with Douglas McFerran as Lynch's Uncle Russell, who receives the news of his nephew's romantic entanglements with uproarious delight, as if he had tuned into some preposterous soap). It's also graced with Hannah, whose slight frame matches up beautifully with Paltrow's. The two of them are like toy lovers, just this side of being twee but very sweet together. Hannah first caught the eye of audiences when he delivered a W.H. Auden poem as a eulogy in "Four Weddings and a Funeral." The scene in "Sliding Doors" where he's called on to express grief is less of a showcase but, in its quiet way, almost as affecting.
"Sliding Doors" isn't romantic comedy -- it doesn't have the wit or wackiness of that genre at its best. It's too bent on making us dissolve into cozy sniffles. But it does have one of romantic comedy's pleasures: watching a stylish version of people going about their lives. You can slip into "Sliding Doors" basking in the fantasy of getting through a rough patch with no sweat, finding just the right turtleneck or leather jacket or hairdo with which to live an existence of understated chic. Sure it's shallow, but it's also part of why we watch movies, to let beautiful people do our moping for us, going from work to cocktails with nary a wrinkle. This DVD offers no extras, but the movie's unreasonably appealing fantasy may be enough.