Doors by Peter Howitt is what they used to call — perhaps they still do — a stylish comedy, but it also has that little metaphysical kick that the movies occasionally give us, that sense of the supernatural somehow brought down to earth, domesticated and made familiar to us that only celluloid can confer. Sometimes, as in the great Groundhog Day, this is fantastically successful; Sliding Doors is not successful on that level. We never quite get the sense that something really important is being said, in this strange and unfamiliar world, about our world, which I take to be the measure of real artistic success. Howitt’s exercise strikes us as being more an example of cleverness than profundity. Still, it is very clever, quite funny in parts, and nearly always enjoyable. And for a while it begins to seem as if it is going to have something serious to say about relationships. This it never quite gets round to doing.
The thesis is that a young woman called Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets sacked from her job with a PR firm, decides to go home, and either just catches or just misses a train on the London Underground. The film rather boldly decides to pursue both eventualities simultaneously. First we see her, having caught the train, being chatted up by a young Scot called James (John Hannah) and giving him the cold shoulder. Cut to her missing the train. An announcement says that there are to be delays on the District Line, so she goes back up to the street to take a taxi. While she is waiting for a taxi, she is mugged and her head is cut by a fall against a tree. The taxi driver takes her to the hospital to get a couple of stitches.
Cut back to her having caught the train. She gets off without incident at the same stop as James, and she apologizes for being so stand-offish. She is in a bad mood because she has just lost her job. They part on good terms. She returns to her flat and finds her boyfriend, Jerry (John Lynch) in bed with another woman, Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Cut back to the train-misser. She is delayed by her encounter with the mugger and her trip to the hospital. She arrives home rather later to find the boyfriend in the shower and nothing untoward beyond a couple of unexplained brandy snifters on a sideboard.
The two Helens continue to take turns. Helen number one, the train catcher, leaves the boyfriend to go and stay with her friend Anna (Zara Turner). She meets James again in a bar and they begin an affair. She has a makeover and, encouraged by James, starts her own PR firm which is almost immediately successful. Meanwhile Helen number two, the train misser, is still with the boyfriend, who continues to sneak around on her. She continues depressed and gets a job as a waitress. Jerry pours out his feelings of guilt to his mate, Russell (Douglas McFerran), who very wisely laughs at him. Russell’s uproarious laughter at his sheepish friend’s confessions is the best thing in the film and, along with the unfailingly sprightly and witty dialogue, gives us the sense of a healthy detachment from some of the heavier implications of the events unfolding before us.
Not that these are quite ignored. At first it seems that we are headed in one of two possible directions. The most obvious is towards the conclusion that it was much better for Helen to catch Jerry in the act, leave him and get started on a new life. It would also be better for Jerry because it would put an end to his furtiveness and his guilt, which is a blight on the lives of both of them. The less obvious direction is towards a renewal of Jerry’s and Helen’s relationship, since Lydia proves to be a witch and Jerry much more attached to Helen than he realizes. When we find out that James already has a wife that he hasn’t told Helen about, it begins to seem as if she had to catch him and break up with him for that relationship to be rebuilt, since James is obviously a dead end too and Jerry is pining away for her.
But then things change again. Maybe James isn’t quite what he seems. Jerry is hopelessly feckless and indecisive. Both Helen and Lydia get pregnant in both stories, but while Lydia is both times pregnant by Jerry, Helen number one is pregnant by James and Helen number two is pregnant by Jerry. Then both Helens have an accident, though it is a different accident in each case. What will become of them? Who is the right man for her? I will not disguise the fact that I think the ending an unsatisfactory resolution of such a clever superfluity of narration, but perhaps no ending would have been any better. In the end, there just wasn’t enough reason for Howitt’s telling these two stories apart from showing he could do it.