Published May 1, 1999
Twice Upon a Yesterday, whose British title was The Man With Rain in His Shoes, was directed by Maria Ripoll as a pretty transparent imitation of Sliding Doors but without very much of that film’s wit or stylishness. I have nothing in principle against this kind of metaphysical fable and think of its great exemplar, Groundhog Day, as one of the best films of the decade. But Groundhog Day was funny as well as profound, and Twice Upon a Yesterday is, well, not funny (it hardly tries to be) and not even very profound. Its basic idea is to make real one of the parallel but inescapably unreal lives that we all wonder about from time to time — the roads not taken, the might- have-beens — but in the end there doesn’t appear to the spectator to have been any particular reason for doing so.
The story concerns an unsuccessful, slovenly and temperamental actor called Victor Bukowski (Douglas Henshall) who, despite his Slavic name, speaks with a Glaswegian burr. Having slept with one of his cast-mates in a play he is doing in London, he comes home and confesses all to his live-in girlfriend, Sylvia (Lena Headey). She breaks off the relationship and soon meets Dave (Mark Strong) at the gym. As the film opens, it is eight months later and Sylvia is about to marry Dave. Victor is desolate at the thought of losing her. If only he could go back in time and undo what he has done! After an encounter with a mysterious barmaid (Elizabeth McGovern), he wanders drunk in the rain, climbs into a dumpster and asks a couple of garbage men to haul him away.
But the garbage men turn out to be modern day embodiments of the principal characters in Don Quixote who call themselves Don Miguel (Eusebio Lázaro) and Raphael (Guillermo Salmerón). They offer him the chance to live the last eight months over again. His life, they tell him is “a kite tangled in a tree: go and disentangle it.” Suddenly he finds himself once again on his way home to Sylvia on the day he made the mistake of telling her of his sexual adventure. He is overjoyed and resolves not only to treat her differently but also to clean up his life in other ways. In his new life, he not only has what he previously realized too late to be his true love, but he also begins to be more successful professionally and personally.
Until things begin to go wrong. The advice of his obnoxious friend, Freddie (Neil Stuke), never to give too much, always to “leave ‘em wanting more,” proves unhappily to be correct. Bored with her new, perfect boyfriend, Sylvia now becomes the one ripe for an affair. And Dave is still going to the gym in the new life as he was in the old. Victor is now the jealous one, trying out different ways to discover the truth (“I was just tidying up today,” he says in the midst of the squalor of their apartment, “and picked up your jacket and a pair of men’s pants [i.e. underpants] fell out”); she is the one who has to confess and move out. But otherwise he is in exactly the same place he was in his other life, with only the sense of being the innocent party to comfort him.
If the film had ended at this point, I would have felt more sympathetic towards what it is trying to do. It would have made a moral point, though perhaps not a very strong one, about the immutability of fate. But of course it doesn’t. The tables are turned even more completely, as Victor meets the beautiful Louise (Penelope Cruz), falls in love and plans to marry while Sylvia tires of Dave and is smitten with the same regrets he, Victor, had in the original version of his life. If only she could go back and do things differently. . . Can she? The ending leaves the question unanswered, but hints at a kind of infinite regress of differently lived lives as each of the two lovers in turn — and who knows who else besides? — may hope to receive the one indulgence that we know Heaven never grants.
What is the point? If, as the film seems to suggest, love is simply a matter of contingency, can there ever be any such thing as “real love”? And if not, it hardly seems worth the trouble to explore a different dimension and relive one’s life (several’s life?) as if it were still in some sense a single thing, only to arrive at such a disappointing conclusion. The point seems to amount to not much more than the pedestrian one that in different lives you’d get different results — even be a different person. Yeah? So? Artistically it seems like playing tennis with the net down, as Robert Frost said of free verse. Better to respect the boundary noted by Auden when he wrote:
Clear, unscaleable ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead
From whose cold, cascading streams,
None may drink, except in dreams.