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Sliding Doors

Review: 'Sliding Doors' is Paltrow-worthy

Web posted on: Monday, May 11, 1998 2:41:30 PM EDT

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Boy, I like that Gwyneth Paltrow. She's already appeared in more than a few outright clunkers and has yet to display a great deal of range in her performances, but she's still the most enjoyably old-fashioned actress of her generation. You won't find any self-conscious grunge or overimagined sexiness here.

Paltrow is a long, graceful woman with a dazzling smile and a casual glide to her walk. Audrey Hepburn is the obvious actress to compare her to, and, for this kind of performer, that's pretty good company. Like Hepburn, you somehow sense an ugly duckling in Paltrow's past, even though there's not a single shred of evidence to suggest that she was ever anything but drop-dead gorgeous; she almost seems surprised by her own effortlessness. And she can actually act.

Boy, I like that Gwyneth Paltrow, and her new movie, "Sliding Doors," is surprisingly worthy of her elegant gifts. Or, at least, the majority of it is. I'm constantly getting accused by CNN Interactive readers of being some kind of elitist, that by not liking, say, "Pretty Woman," I'm somehow making a stand for Luis Bunuel and Kenneth Anger. Well, this couldn't be any further from the truth. The problem I have with most commercial romantic comedies is that they're cliché-fests, thinly veiled rehashes of scenes and moments from the last thinly veiled rehash. If you make a smart, entertaining one, I'm more than happy to 'fess up to an appreciation for it, and "Sliding Doors" is the first one that I've gotten any kind of buzz off of in a long time. I wasn't bowled over, but I sure appreciated the ride.

Not all of this can be traced to Queen Gwyneth. Excluding a few unfortunate miscues, writer/director Peter Howitt has a way with sharp, snappy dialogue, and the interesting construction of the movie reminds you of "Pulp Fiction," albeit with kissing and hugging as opposed to guns and forced sodomy. Paltrow, sporting a neat, mostly convincing British accent, plays a young professional named Helen, but she actually gets to play her twice in the same movie.

Like "It's a Wonderful Life," this is a "what if" story, as in, what if Helen, after suddenly losing her job at a public relations firm, doesn't make it through the sliding doors of a subway car as she's fleeing the office. Those doors that nearly close on her basically split her in two, and we spend the rest of the movie watching what happens to each Helen -- the one who made it onto the train, and the one who didn't. It's a tough trick to manage something like this, especially with such airy material, but Howitt pulls it off with great panache for a first-time director.

Keeping up with which "Helen" Paltrow is supposed to be does get a little confusing at first, but that's soon remedied when the one who missed the train gets her hair cut shorty-short and dies it blonde (the other Helen sports shoulder-length brown hair). Both plots revolve around Helen's discovery (or lack of discovery, depending on the story line) of her self-serving boyfriend's thoroughly inexplicable need to run around on her. The Helen who gets on the train comes home early to discover him in bed with another woman; the other one misses the action, and ends up staying with him for way too long.

The boyfriend and his mistress are played by John Lynch and Jeanne Trippelhorn. Lynch, unfortunately, is a little too anxiety-ridden for the movie. He plays his two-timing for way too much comic tension; it doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the story. Trippelhorn, on the other hand, is given some pretty lousy dialogue, but manages to make you enjoy hating her. She's never been so sexy on screen, and you can understand a fool like Lynch's character chasing her for all the wrong reasons.

The Helen who breaks away from her boyfriend ends up in a halting courtship with a guy she meets on the train, played by John Hannah of "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Physically, Hannah isn't even close to leading-man material, but this Average Joe quality works in his favor. You want him to end up with Helen because she doesn't realize that this is the sort of partner she needs to get her life rolling in a positive direction.

The scenes between Paltrow and Hannah are sweet without getting cloying, and they seem to really like each other as people. Who knows if it's true, but their banter on camera seems like the result of an off-camera friendship. They just click, and that all-important chemistry is the glue that holds the entire contraption together.

I was distressed when it looked like the movie was going to end very badly, but Howitt negotiates some dangerous soap suds and ends up having it both ways. It's a movie with a happy sad ending, and I've never seen that one before. Take a date to see it, but, if you're feeling adventurous, it would make perfect sense to take two. Just don't let them sit together.

"Sliding Doors" contains some sexual situations and bad language. CLICHÉ WARNING: The ever-popular "kissing in the rain" scene. Howitt seems more than smart enough to avoid that kind of thing, but I won't hold it against him because Paltrow is the one doing the kissing. You dodged a bullet, Peter. 105 minutes. Rated R.

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