There was a time, in movies, when Gwyneth Paltrow would make out with John Hannah and audiences would go, “Okay, sure,” and not be sarcastic. It’s hard to imagine. But we don’t have to imagine it, because Sliding Doors is on Netflix and we can just watch that.

The premise is simple: either Helen (Ms. Paltrow) makes a train or she doesn’t. If she makes the train, she meets James (Mr. Hannah) on it. She also catches her boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch), cheating on her with Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). If she doesn’t, she doesn’t. We watch both options play out.

Helen is that rare thing in films: a woman who has more than one thing going on. She cares about her career, she cares about her boyfriend, and she cares about her friends. She gets drunk and is sad, she worries that he hasn’t called, she sometimes doesn’t know what to do. It’s great, and Ms. Paltrow is good in both parts: the Helen that catches Gerry and makes immediate major life changes (you might remember that adorable pixie cut) with the help of her friend Anna (Zara Turner), and the Helen who…doesn’t. You’re initially disappointed in Helen for ever falling for Gerry’s particular brand of nonsense–he’s a writer, and she supports him, plus of course he’s a spineless cheating jerk–but then she mostly starts making much better decisions, so it’s not irritatingly hard to watch.

James is charming, and maybe slightly too quirky, but it’s also nice to see how he likewise has a family and a life and doesn’t spend all his time creepily following Helen around, as he would if this were a normal romantic comedy. He just notices that she’s sad and buys her a milkshake, and then things develop. Perhaps one of the things I look for in films is a plot that doesn’t demand weird dramatic gestures or fairy tales. It’s much better to see characters make a connection through reasonable common ground and plausible physical attraction. You know, like people.

On the other hand, Lydia is kind of a caricature, and she intermittently draws Gerry into her absurd orbit. These are the weakest bits of the film. Fortunately you have Helen and James to pull your focus back.

Oh, yeah, the clothes are awful. Even Ms. Paltrow almost drowns in some of the horrible boxy garbage. And only she can wear those slips people wore as dresses for outside back then.

Stray observations:

  • “Shagging” used as an explicit gerund is maybe the worst example of awkward bowdlerizing I’ve ever seen, and if people actually used it habitually in London in the late 90s, then London in the late 90s was a sad place.
  • John Hannah has infinite goodwill with me, but I guess your mileage may vary.

Director: Peter Howitt
Rating: R
Length: 99 minutes
Score: 4/5

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