Monday, March 19, 2012

Sliding Doors, More than a Clever Little Plot Device

After watching a great movie, I often read reviews of it. I'm not sure why -- whether I'm seeking validation ("it really was good, wasn't it?") or just looking to put my finger on what made it good, but I like to hear what the professionals have to say.

So when they trash a movie that I find amazing, its a jarring reality.  And then the wheels of justification start turning. These are the times it is really good to have a blog.

And what movie inspired such clashing of realities? Sliding Doors. The 1998 movie staring Gwyneth Paltrow. Watching it again recently and reveling in the incredible theme of dual realities, I was surprised to find that I seem to like this film a lot more than most critics do. They all pay lip service to the clever plot device underlying the film but then nitpick the script. In doing so they really miss the magic. The parallel, alternate reality concept is much more than just a clever little idea, it is a brilliant concept worthy of acclaim and providing a deep movie-watching experience.

Imagine if one of those "what if moments" in life came true. "If only I'd locked the door," "made that light," "turned off the iron," or "called my mom" -- all the little moments on which the happiness of our lives seem to turn at a given moment. What if we could metaphysically explore both alternate timelines and see what would have been different?

That is what Sliding Doors visualizes so wonderfully in this elegantly philosophical exploration of a woman's life.

As the movie starts, our main character, Helen, (Gwenyth Paltrow) gets fired from her job. She heads home in humiliation. Only she misses her subway train by a second -- the sliding door shuts in her face. At that moment, this movie allows reality to split. Her life becomes bifurcated.

In one possible reality, yes, she misses that train, and takes a cab. But what if she had made that train? A second vignette begins to intercut with the first and explores that reality. If she had made the train? She'd have plopped herself down next to John Hannah (nice sympathetic and intelligent guy "James" with his impossibly charming accent.) Not a bad thing to have happen, even on an otherwise really bad day. Then she'd get home a bit earlier, and what she would find there would change her life even more: her boyfriend making love to another woman. Now she has no job and no guy and is hits rock bottom instantly.

But in the other vignette, Helen, after her cab ride, gets out and gets mugged which causes two important things to happen, the first that she shows up back at the apartment too late to catch her boyfriend in the act, and the second, that she gets a very useful bandage on her head (to let us know which vignette we're in). This Helen thinks her relationship is fine and takes comfort in his arms.

From here reality plays out along a different course for each. The rock-bottom Gwyneth gets a new hairdo, taking over where the bandage left off in distinguishing our vignettes. She doesn’t have a relationship to fall back on so she plows headlong into change, relying on true friends old and new to support her in her new choices. New friend James is adorable in this movie. In one of my favorite scenes, as he gets to know Helen better:

“Wait. Hold. Hold. Your friend Anna thinks I’m cute? You’re friend Anna thinks I’m cute. Shit  I just blew, wait, 2. 85. 2.85 on the wrong girl." James sums up one of the central tenants of life in his next speech: "Helen, listen sometimes we are thrown into people lives when they just need to be cheered up, or reassured, and it turns out for some reason its your  job. - I don’t know why.  - In your case its my job.  But, I’ll be honest, the fact that I find you moderately attractive just makes my job easier on my part. My intentions are completely honorable."

The plot continues on, exploring both Helens' relationships and careers. Ultimately the message is that you can't avoid the life you're supposed to be living. Your fate is your fate and both Helens move along a life course that will ultimately explore the reality they have to be living. I won't give away too many more plot details because if you've read this far, you should certainly be watching the movie for yourself.



  1. I also watched it about two or three times. I liked this film, especially Gwyneth's character.
    It was not praised by critics, but the 6,8 score on IMDb is rather good.:)

  2. Nicely done. I like this movie and always thought it was unfairly slighted by critics.