Fate’s Elbow

slidingdoorsSLIDING DOORS (1998) FATE’S ELBOW 

Director Peter Howitt had been a professional actor for over 15 years when he wrote the script for SLIDING DOORS (1998), and it became his directorial debut. I think he understood the creative debt he owed writer/director Krzysztof Kieslowski for the “concepts” put forth in his films BLIND CHANCE (1987), and THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991). In BLIND CHANCE we found three parallel story lines having to do with catching, or not catching a train. Ironically, German director Tom Tykwer’s RUN, LOLA, RUN (1998) was being developed and filmed simultaneously with Howitt’s project. LOLA had three story lines all kicked off by arbitrary actions. So all together now—let’s have a tip of the director’s beret to Kieslowski.

 

In his biography, KIESLOWSKI ON KIESLOWSKI, the director described his attraction to the metaphysical concept this way, “The idea is rich and interesting—that every day we are faced with a choice which could end our entire life, yet of which we are completely unaware of.”

 

Peter Howitt said, “I got bored with acting. Dressing up pretending to be someone else seemed like a really silly thing to do. But I did like telling stories, so I thought I would have a go at doing it from the other side of the camera. I never thought that it would work out, but it did. I was very lucky that I was able to make the transition. I’m sure that there must be lots of people who would like the chance to do one, and don’t get to do either. I’m just a jammy git.”

 

Howitt as an actor made 27 film appearances from 1982. He was featured in IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993), where he met actor John Lynch, whom he used later in SLIDING DOORS. Howitt had a role in the TV series HIGHLANDER (1993). He was also in SOME MOTHER’S SON (1996), again with John Lynch. He appeared as the “Cheeky Bloke” in SLIDING DOORS because suddenly while filming he realized had not cast the part. Since DOORS in 1998), he has directed six films, like JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003), with Rowan Atkinson, and LAWS OF ATTRACTION (2004), with Pierce Brosnan; who by the way had also worked with John Lynch in EVELYN (2003). What a small and tight little world the business of filmmaking can be.

 

The plot of SLIDING DOORS sets into motion a metaphysical maze. Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) has been “sacked” from her male dominated PR job.

 

Helen: OK, I’ll go. I was getting a bit choked up with all the testosterone flying around the place. Best I get out of here before I start growing a penis.

 

The book Helen spills tea on during the credits as she readies to leave for work, and reads later is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.

 

Heading home early she uses the underground. Rushing along we see her miss the train—but then zip-zap the film backs up like a one-reel silent comedy, and then we see her catch the subway. From this point on we start experiencing two parallel story lines with Helen both sitting on the train, and standing forlorn on the platform as the train pulls away.

 

Mick LaSalle of the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE wrote, “Writer-director Peter Howitt, in his film debut, handles the disparate strains with impressive smoothness. There is no sense of starting and stopping. We see two stories, but it feels as though we’re seeing one, and the audience is never lost. No doubt this seeming effortlessness was hard-won. Movies this smooth don’t happen by accident.”

 

James Berardinelli of REEL VIEWS wrote, “SLIDING DOORS is the first romantic comedy to plumb the depths of the “road not taken” approach. It is not just a plot device either. Writer/Director Peter Howitt expands upon both possible fates of a character after she just misses/catches a train. The audience watches, with ever-growing fascination, how this one event impacts upon every aspect of her life, her future career, where she lives, whom she loves, and whether she has a family. As her separate destinies diverge and then re-converge, she becomes two completely different individuals.

    This is the first feature film for Peter Howitt, and he approaches the task with unimpeachable aplomb. The script is shrewd and inventive, combining wit, romance, and intelligent melodrama into a crowd pleasing whole. SLIDING DOORS grants more than a good time at the movies, however. For those who are so inclined, its central theme offers the opportunity to ponder some of the more philosophical questions about the workings of the universe—all while having a good time.”

 

Roger Ebert of THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES wrote, “ SLIDING DOORS uses parallel time-lines to explore the different paths that a woman’s life might take after she does, or doesn’t find her lover in bed with another woman. I submit that there is a simple test to determine if this plot can work. Is either time-line interesting in itself? If not, then no amount of shifting back and forth between them can help. And I fear they are not.”

 

Tod MCarthy of VARIETY wrote, “SLIDING DOORS is a frothy, lightweight romantic comedy that strives to seem richer and more complex than it really is. Peter Howitt, a British actor making his directorial debut, has whipped up a concoction with enough quick wit and charm to make this a sure fire audience pleaser for the dating crowd and couples, and it serves as a solid star vehicle for Gwyneth Paltrow. Howitt proves himself a good writer of glib, bubbly dialogue, and the frequency of yocks is sufficient to keep most viewers happy. But his direction shows nothing but by-the-numbers coverage, resulting in routine editing of scenes, and little sense of overall shaping.”

 

Helen A., who caught the train, arrived at her flat hoping to get some emotional comfort from her live-in boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch)—who is being supported by her as he writes his first novel. But she does not find a loving and caring ear for her tale of vocational woe—rather she finds Gerry “shagging” a strange woman; who turns out to be named Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Outraged, Helen A. left the “wanker” standing naked, wrapped in a damp blanket.

 

Helen: I come home and catch you up to your nuts in Lady Shagging Godiva! You wanker—you sad, sad wanker.

 

 She headed straight for a pub and she proceeded to get “drunk as a monkey”—where she is reunited with a chance acquaintance, James (John Hannah).

 

(Helen A. tells James her boyfriend is cheating on her)

James: Well, if it makes you feel any better…do you see that bloke over there?

(points to his friend at the end of the bar)

James: Not only does he own a personalized matching set of crocodile-skin luggage, but his favorite TV program is BAYWATCH. So you see there’s always someone sadder than you.

(Helen starts to cry)

James: Do you love him?

Helen: No, I could never love a Baywatch fan.

 

Helen’s best friend, Anna (Zara Turner) shows up at the pub.

Anna: Are you OK?

Helen: Yes, just going quietly mad.

Anna: Thank goodness for that. I was worried.

(later when on her feet, and obviously very inebriated)

Helen: I’m not as drunk as thinkle peep I am.

Anna: Put a wick in her mouth and she’d burn for a fortnight.

 

Zara Turner gave us an Anna that was the perfect “best friend”, loyal, witty, caring, open-armed, compassionate, level-headed, and willing to take on all comers to defend Helen; in short again the kind of woman, or female sidekick and friend we meet in romantic comedy films, but rarely bump into in the harshness and mundane wilderness of our regular ruts.

 

(Speaking about Gerry)

Helen A.: Bollocks to him. I’m over him.

Anna: (skeptically) Oh. You’re over him.

Helen: Yes. Totally and utterly and completely over him.

Anna: No you’re not.

Helen: I am.

Anna: You’re not.

Helen: Anna, I’m over him! What do you mean, I’m not? How do you know I’m not?

Anna: Well, two things really. One, you’re still counting how long you’ve been apart in days—and probably in hours and minutes—but the big flashing red light way of telling you’re not over someone is when you’re still reading their horoscope in the hope that they’re going to get wiped out in some freak napalming incident.

Helen: Smartass!

(Tossing the newspaper at Anna)

Anna: (Open the paper) What is he?

Helen: A wanker.

(pause)

Helen: Oh, Aries.

Anna: Aries, Aries…well, just shows you how much I know. (reads on) “With Mars your ruler in ascendancy, you will get wiped out in a freak napalming incident and Helen says bollocks to you.” This guy’s very good.

 

When James and Helen A. first met on the subway/tube/train, James talks about the Beatles. A little later in the film as Helen A. and Anna get into the taxi held for them by James they instruct the driver to take them to 9 Menlove Ave., which was the childhood home of John Lennon.

 

James: Everybody’s born knowing all the Beatle’s lyrics instinctively. They’re passed into the fetus subconsciously along with all the amniotic stuff. Fact, they should be called “The Fetals”.

 

Helen A. moves in with her best friend, Anna (Zara Turner), cuts and dyes her hair blond. Soon her life becomes enriched with her new and wonderful “independence”.

 

James: Haircut suits you, by the way.

(Helen demurs)

James: No, it does, it does! No gag. Never make a joke about a woman’s hair, clothes, or menstrual cycles—page one.

 

James: Cheer up. Remember what THE MONTY PYTHON boys say.

Helen: “Always look on the bright side of life”?

James: No. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

 

John Hannah gave us a James Hemmerton who was funny, self-deprecating, cute, loveable, honest—sort of, and a gentleman; in short almost too good to be true, one of those characters you meet in romantic comedies that you never meet in the real world. Regardless, Hannah did a very credible job with this likeable bloke. Another actor might have made him too bland, too vanilla—but Hannah gives him superb energy, verve, and excellent coming timing; although his Scottish accent was at times a bit thick.

 

James: What are you doing two weeks on Saturday?

Helen: Probably killing myself.

James: Excellent. What time does that finish? Do you like boats?

Helen: I’m not—I’m not good at—at, you know…

James: Constructing sentences?

 

On one of their first dates at the Soda Fountain:

James: Come on! If you don’t drink your fatty drinks, you will never achieve quality cellulite.

Helen: Look, James. Maybe I shouldn’t be here. I’m sorry. I’m not being fair. You know, under normal circumstances, etcetera—you are really nice—and funny. My friend Anna thinks you’re cute…

James: Wait, wait! Your friend Anna thinks I’m cute? Your friend ANNA thinks I’m cute? Shit, I just blew it—wait (looks at the menu)—two eighty-five on the wrong girl!

 

Oddly while Helen and James are sitting in the diner, they are drinking distinctively “pink” milkshakes. As the shot cuts back and forth the milkshakes disappear and reappear; magical milk I guess. In the next scene James refers to them as “chocolate” shakes, which was odd. I have never seen pink chocolate milk. As a film buff this scene puts me in mind of the scene in SHALLOW HAL (2001), where Ms. Paltrow wearing a fat suit is swilling a milk shake the size of a gallon bucket at a fountain with Jack Black.

 

Todd McCarthy wrote, “John Hannah makes James impossibly charming and tactful, and one can almost her Hugh Grant delivering the same pithy lines.” Gee, is this a compliment or a slam?

 

John Hannah has had 50 film appearances since 1987. He is perhaps best known for playing the gay character Matthew in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994), with Hugh Grant, and the odd fellow Jonathan Carnahan who showed up in THE MUMMY (1999), with Brendan Fraser, repeated the role in THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001), and presently is putting some finishing touches on THE MUMMY III: Tomb of the Dragon Emporer (2008). I remember him as well in the HBO series CARNIVALE (2003). I read where he was “considered” for the part of Charlie on the TV series LOST. He is a graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

 

Helen B., who missed the train, is nearly mugged while hailing a taxi, and has to be taken to the emergency room to get some stitches in her forehead. She arrived at her apartment mere moments after Lydia had exited. Gerry was able to bluster his way through a miasma of lies regarding his activities of the morning, and she decided to believe him.

 

Helen: For God’s sake, Gerry, I asked you a simple question; there is no need for you to become Woody Allen.

 

But as the months went on, and she worked two jobs to support him, Gerry continued to cheat on her with Lydia. Finally fatigued waiting for him to leave Helen B., Lydia decided to intervene in their domestic life, demonstrating what a wicked and controlling vixen she really was. There was also the complication of pregnancy in both plot lines—Helen A. by James, and both Helen B. and Lydia by Gerry.

 

(Helen A. walks into the room holding a pregnancy test)

Anna: James?

(Helen nods)

Anna: Since last night?

(Helen stares)

Anna: Sorry.

(pause)

Anna: You can’t tell from one. They can be inaccurate.

Helen: I bought three packets—two in a packet. You can tell from six.

 

Jeanne Tripplehorn gave us a Lydia that was all bitch and pitch, rock and roll, an egocentric type that after being gone from England for three years has looked Gerry up and proceeded to seduce him, and is trying her level best to take him away from his Helen. It is a very unsympathetic role, and though she gets a lot of mileage out of it, she does not emerge as “likeable” at any point. She never gives us that moment we need to care about her, is never really vulnerable, and is always manipulative and controlling.

 

James Berardinelli wrote, “Only Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays the over-the-top vixen, seems out of place. Her attempts at broad comedy are occasionally jarring, and it is occasionally difficult to see her Lydia as anything more than a plot element.”

 

Lydia: (on the phone) Who’s there?

Helen: It’s Helen, actually. We met once. I interrupted you faking your orgasm. Sorry I can’t be more specific.

 

Lydia: Gerry, I’m a woman! We don’t say what we WANT! But we reserve the right to get pissed off if we don’t get it. That’s what makes us so fascinating! And not a little bit scary.

 

FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) anyone?

 

While at their hotel room in Dorset:

Gerry: What are you trying to do?

Lydia: I’m trying to be your girlfriend, Gerry! I’m trying to win you back! I’m standing on the platform of Limbo Central with my heart and soul packed in my suitcase waiting for the Gerry Fucking Express to roll in and tell me what my ticket is still valid and that I may reboard the train. Only the station announcer keeps coming on and telling me that my train has been delayed as the driver has suffered a major panic attack in Indecision City. “We suggest you take the bus”! That’s what I have been trying to do, you cripple!!

 

Todd McCarthy wrote, “Lydia is played by Jeanne Tripplehorn as a monstrous shrew without a single redeeming feature that might explain her sustained appeal to Gerry [Perhaps her voluptuous figure had something to do with it]. Tripplehorn is even photographed grotesquely at times, as if the film needed to further underline her unrestrained bitchiness.”

 

Jeanne Tripplehorn has been in 30 films since 1991. Her career was launched with her role in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), doing a torrid love scene with Michael Douglas—when he wasn’t doing torrid love scenes with Sharon Stone, then she was in THE FIRM (1993), with Tom Cruise, WATERWORLD (1995), with a buff Kevin Costner and a nefarious Dennis Hopper, a great part in the TV film OLD MAN (1997), with Arliss Howard, and then MICKEY BLUE EYES (1999), with Hugh Grant. Lately she has been successful playing one of the Mormon wives on HBO’s BIG LOVE, with Bill Paxton.  She attended Juliard in NYC. She had a relationship with Ben Stiller that lasted 6 years.

She had been cast as the female lead in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994), but had to drop out, and the part went to Andie McDowell. She had been cast in PULP FICTION (1998), but after some “complications”, the role went to Uma Thurman.

 

In the plot line for Helen B., boyfriend Gerry meets with his mate, Russell (Douglas McFerran) a favorite pub, and whines about his difficulties trying to balance his two relationships, Helen B. and Lydia. McFerran’s Russell steals every scene, he is enjoying Gerry’s plight so much.

 

Russell: Do you want my opinion?

Gerry: Will I like it?

Russell: Of course not—it’ll be based in reality.

 

Russell: I must say, being friends with you certainly makes the wait for the next episode of SEINFELD much easier to bear.

 

Russell: Gerry, you are a morality-free zone. Sorry, let me just—Lydia’s becoming more and more demanding and you feel bad because Helen’s working night and day to keep the money coming in. But you have asked Helen to come on a research trip to Dorset with you—knowing that she wouldn’t be able to—to cover up the fact that you are really taking Lydia. And despite the fact that Lydia gave you an out on the phone—which you didn’t take—you are having a moral dilemma?

 

James Berardinelli wrote, “One member of the supporting cast deserves special notice—Douglas McFerran, who plays Gerry’s best friend, Russell, is an absolute delight, stealing every scene that he is in. McFerran tears into this part with relish; his performance becomes one of the most memorable aspects of a top-notch comedy.”

 

During one of these encounters in the pub when Gerry tells Russell that he has ended the relationship with Lydia, after returning from Dorset, he entered the pub and sat down without buying a drink—then finishes off a nearly empty pint glass and leaves.

 

Both story lines proceed toward a tragic denouement. Then miraculously we witness the threads of one life cross over to the other. Perhaps there could have been more of that in this movie. Kieslowski would have allowed more synchronicity to be at work, more instinctual intuitive transfers, and more coincidence. Sometimes director Howitt became so frantic showing us the parallel plots that it became a bit confusing as to which “dimension” we were immersed in. Perhaps that is why he had Helen A. dye her hair blond, to ratchet down the possible confusion.

 

Mick LaSalle wrote, “But there isn’t enough of that sort of thing going on. The two version of her don’t diverge enough, and neither do the circumstances, really–despite the metaphysical hugeness of the gimmick. SLIDING DOORS does not go anywhere important. It is not concerned with soul of character—but more with what boyfriend the heroine will end up with. I can give the movie credit for being a different sort of romantic comedy, but still one has to regret the failure of imagination. Who would these women have been in 10 years, in 20 years? That’s the juicy stuff, not the fluff about boyfriends and infidelity.”

 

During one of the hospital scenes, when Helen A. is in surgery, the lead surgeon has several shots wearing a mask, and some more in which he wears no mask, while he is operating on her.

 

Jerry Lynch gave us a Gerry that really was a selfish butt, a man who listened to his second head before paying attention to his thoughts about it. Yet, somehow, he made this character a tiny bit likeable, especially in the end of both scenarios as he realized what an idiot he had really been; but he did not emerge as a tragic character. He has nice comic timing, and what man has not spent some time stammering a lame excuse to his lady?

 

Gerry: (looking in the mirror as Helen B. has passed out on the bed) Are you some peculiar, thus far undefined breed of dickhead? You have two head problems. One, that was close, very close. Put it in layman’s terms, she nearly caught you. Two, and this is far more worrying than the first one—you’re talking to yourself I the mirror again; really bad sign.

 

Mick LaSalle wrote, “Lynch is an actor best known in this country for his roles in the dour Irish dramas, NOTHING PERSONAL and IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER. Lynch shows us a comic aptness as a man who seems destined to blow it with Paltrow in both hairstyles and incarnations.”

 

Lynch has appeared in 43 films since 1984, movies like EDWARD II (1991), THE SECRET GARDEN (1993), IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993), with Daniel Day-Lewis,  PRINCESS CARABOO (1994), with Kevin Kline, MOLL FLANDERS (1996), with Morgan Freeman, EVELYN (2002), with Pierce Brosnan, and LASSIE (2005). He is a graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

  

Somehow Gwyneth Paltrow was fully able to develop “both” Helens into individual characterizations, Helen A. becoming stronger and more independent, and Helen B. becoming more other directed and gullible. Paltrow’s English accent sounded very authentic. This was the first time she attempted that Brit accent, for EMMA (1996), her Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), and her role in POSSESSION (2002) were still projects for her future. In DOORS she reminded me of a young Audrey Hepburn—slim, sexy, and vulnerable.

 

Patron in the Restaurant: Hey, gorgeous. What do you do when you are not serving us mad cow burgers in here, eh?

Helen: Well, now, then, let me see. I get up at about 7:30am making and delivering sandwiches in the West End during the day before I come here about 6 o’clock and finish at midnight. After that, if I’ve got any energy left, I give my boyfriend a blow job.

(pause)

Helen: Would you like some mayonnaise with that?

 

Mick LaSalle wrote, “Paltrow is charming, as usual, and there are moments when she manages to suggest, with no help from the script, that circumstances are causing the women’s personalities to diverge. In her brunette incarnation [Helen B.], she remains open and guileless, while her blond self [Helen A.] becomes more urbane, and smiles in that Paltrow way—a disconcerting mix of warmth and mockery, as though to say, “Thank you so much for amusing me, you fool.”

 

James Berardinelli wrote, “Paltrow, who does double duty as both Helens who are initially the same, yet gradually become different, is the standout. She plays both of her roles effectively and believably—the shy, insecure woman who stays with Gerry, and the liberated platinum-blond who severs the ties to her old life and embarks on a new career with a new man.”

 

Roger Ebert wrote, “Gwyneth Paltrow is engaging as the two Helens, and I have no complaints about her performance. Pity about the screenplay. It required her to be unobservant, gullible and absent-minded as the faithless Gerry hems and haws through absurdly contrived emergencies. I am grateful that the movie provides Helen A. and Helen B. with different haircuts, which helps to tell the story lines apart. But as we switched relentlessly back and forth between A and B, I found that I was not looking forward to either story. I would have preferred Hypothetical Scenario C, in which Gwyneth Paltrow meets neither James nor Gerry, and stars in a smarter movie.”

 Todd McCarthy of VARIETY wrote, “The entire picture is built around Paltrow, who sports a reasonable English accent and very nearly shines as a young career woman caught up short by professional and personal setbacks.” 

Paltrow has appeared in 38 films since 1981, movies like HOOK (1991), with Robin Williams, FLESH & BONE (1993), with James Caan, JEFFERSON IN PARIS (1995), with Nick Nolte, SE7EN (1995), with Brad Pitt, EMMA (1996), GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1998), with Anne Bancroft, winning her Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), with Ben Affleck, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999), with Matt Damon, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), with Owen Wilson, POSSESSION (2002), with Aaron Eckhart, and PROOF (2005), with Anthony Hopkins.

 

Her parents are Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner. She appeared with her father in the film, DUETS (2000). Her nickname to her friends is “Gwynnie”. She is quite the linguist who speaks fluent French and Spanish. She lived with Brad Pitt after they appeared together in SEVEN in 1996. They broke up in 1997. He was involved with Ben Affleck after they appeared together in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), and BOUNCE (2000). She had auditioned for the part of Rose in TITANIC (1997), losing out to Kate Winslet. She is happily married to musician Chris Martin from the band COLDPLAY.

SLIDING DOORS was very enjoyable, vintage Paltrow. She actually lives in London now with her musician husband and two children. She can smile when she reads about herself being referred to as “that English actress who used to be engaged to Brad Pitt.”

 

James Berardinelli wrote, “On one level, for viewers who enjoy pondering the workings of fate, SLIDING DOORS can be viewed as a deep and wonderful experience. But for those who just appreciate a good romantic comedy characterized by solid acting, a script with a few twists, and a great deal of genuinely funny material, SLIDING DOORS still fits the bill. So one of its most obvious strengths is that it can satisfy many different types of audiences—those who demand something substantial from their motion pictures, and those who could care less.”

 

Todd McCarthy wrote for VARIETY, “If Howitt the director has acquitted himself nearly as well as did Howitt the writer, the result might well have been that rare commodity, a genuinely droll and sparkling modern romance. But the pic’s flat conventional style and the almost grotesque direction of the principal supporting players represent significant drawbacks that prove only more debilitating as the story’s crisscrossed predicaments become increasingly complicated.”

 

Now what a second, pard, I know you write for Variety and all that, and you speak to the BO grosses and salability of films, but obviously most of us disagree with you regarding the handling of the supporting characters, especially Russell and Anna, the best friends. They are both solidly acted, and provide great support for the two time-lines. 

 

 I think that director Peter Howitt has constructed a witty and fun romp that played around with metaphysical quantum physics, and never took itself too seriously. The writing was clever enough to remember many lines for weeks, and there were more than a average share of laughs. I do think it might have been a stronger film, a more intriguing film if he had let more transfer happen between the plot lines, subtle and inconsequential things that would have set up some motifs and symbols that we as viewers could have worked more with. I fell in love with Gwyneth Paltrow as Helen A., and felt appropriately sad for Helen B. I disliked Gerry and cheered on James. The two best friends, Russell and Anna, were marvelously cast, and wryly portrayed; stealing scene after scene.

 

Glenn A. Buttkus  2008

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About Glenn Buttkus

Former actor and Special Ed teacher for the blind, newly retired, spending my days struggling as poet, photographer, novelist, husband, and grandfather.
This entry was posted in 2008, Discussion of Official TFC Selected Films, General Film Related Discussion, Glenn Buttkus and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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