Playful, romantic game of 'what if?'

Movie: Sliding Doors

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Our Rating: 3.00

In his debut film, writer-director Peter Howitt takes a small, seemingly insignificant moment in a woman's life and proposes a big "what if?"

After getting fired from her posh job at a London public relations firm, a slightly dazed Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) heads for home via the subway. From the stairs, she spies a train and makes a run for it, but the doors slide shut before she makes it on.

Just another bad break in what's turning into a bad day? Not quite. Director Howitt rewinds this small moment and changes circumstances, so that Helen gains a split-second and makes it onto the subway car. From this moment on, she leads two parallel lives.

In the first, a professionally demoralized Helen takes on waitressing-delivery jobs to support her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) as he finishes writing a novel. But she's not too busy to see their relationship inexplicably crumbling. In the second, she goes home to discover Gerry in bed with his ex-girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn). This triggers Helen to pursue a new life: starting her own business and hesitantly pursuing romance with James (John Hannah). After setting the Helens on parallel tracks, Howitt smoothly cuts between the two stories with minimal confusion (fortunately, one Helen opts for a radically different haircut).

Too often, Gwyneth Paltrow is maddeningly bland in romantic comedy roles, coming to life only when playing aloof or manipulative characters (Estella in "Great Expectations," the amoral con artist in "Flesh and Bone"). But Helen isn't a standard-issue ingenue: She's accustomed to being in control, to making things happen. Here Paltrow employs a crisp British accent and brash manner and makes Helen substantial and edgy, even in her most uncertain moments.

Former actor Howitt also draws low-key, heartfelt performances from John Lynch (Cal) and John Hannah ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") as flawed, decent men.

By the time the two story lines converge, it's clear that "Sliding Doors" is more than a clever gimmick. Peter Howitt explores the vagaries of life with a light touch and the soul of a true romantic.

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