In 1998, Richard Curtis wasn’t Richard Curtis just yet. By which I mean, the man who effectively rejuvenated and fostered the British rom-com scene singlehandedly with the one-two punch of Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary, whose style and tone would be aped by dozens of lesser imitators hoping to ride those coattails to similar world-conquering success. In ‘98, Curtis was instead a beloved sitcom veteran of Blackadder and Mr. Bean who just so happened to pump out the script to the most successful British movie of all-time (at that point), 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. Hindsight, of course, has allowed Four Weddings to become the genesis of Curtis’ transformation into the brand we know and have a love-hate relationship with today, but that hindsight has also caused the imitators and wannabes which cropped up in the wake of Four Weddings to come off even worse as the years have run on.
To wit: Sliding Doors, the debut feature of writer-director and Bread actor Peter Howitt. Whilst Curtis doesn’t have exclusive ownership rights on high-concept British rom-coms with third-act dramatic turns, I found it near-impossible to watch Howitt’s film without having Notting Hill, Bridget Jones, Four Weddings, and even Love, Actually in the front of my mind. None of which do Sliding Doors any favours. The premise – whose butterfly effect foundation a better rom-com might have used as a fun examination of the missed chances and coincidences which power such films – follows Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow boasting a thick but at least consistent British accent later perfected by Renée Zellweger), a just-recently fired PR manager through two separate timelines based on whether or not she manages to catch the Waterloo train back home after her firing. Each timeline will see her trying to make ends meet in different ways, each will revolve around whether or not Helen discovers her boyfriend of several years, Gerry (John Lynch), has been compulsively cheating on her with an American flame (Jeanne Tripplehorn) from back in his past, but only one will bring her into constant contact with the charming and chatty James (John Hannah who is really not helping the Four Weddings comparisons) who is unquestionably the better romantic partner for Helen than the gaslighting simpering Gerry she for some inexplicable reason cannot quit.
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So, the main problem with Sliding Doors, which funnily enough is also the main sin of many a post-2002 Richard Curtis work, is the fact that everybody in it is kind of a massive unlikeable cartoonish asshole. Gerry’s sidepiece isn’t just the cranky girlfriend tired of him not leaving Helen for her, she’s an actively malevolent psychopath who intentionally trolls an unknowing Helen at every opportunity like a panto villain, shows up outside the couple’s apartment in full-on stalker mode like Glenn Close, and deliberately plays into stereotypes of crazy unknowable women who flip out over the tiniest slight. Gerry isn’t just The Worst, he’s The Worst Person Who Has Ever Lived, an absolutely insufferable and (more damningly since he takes up so much of the movie with frequent scenes dedicated to just him and his bad screwball comedy routine) boring to watch cretin with an overegged and mugging performance who can’t even have the decency to make his comeuppance cathartic. Even the voices of reason are pompous douchenozzles. Gerry has a friend he goes to in order to whine about his shit, and said friend whilst dispensing sound advice does so in the preachiest and snobbiest manner possible that any alleged humour instead comes off as unbearably smug.
The two leads don’t fair much better either, although it’s not for want of trying on the parts of Paltrow and Hannah. Hannah’s James, plus the terrible Lynch as Gerry come to think of it, is saddled with most of Howitt’s excessively-flowery and nowhere near as funny or clever or endearing as it thinks it is dialogue – in fact, it seems whenever Howitt feels it’s been too long without a gag, he has James break into an extended rendition of “The Spanish Inquisition” from Monty Python as if that is somehow a substitute for actual joke-crafting – but Hannah puts in a herculean effort to turn it into something halfway charming. He’s infrequently successful at it, too, although he really can’t do anything with a late-film reveal which makes James come off like a complete tit. Paltrow’s Helen, meanwhile, is less a character and more a doormat to whom bad things happen; Howitt’s script never managing to figure out what makes her tick in either timeline, relishing the non-stop misery that is inflicted upon her in one of the timelines, and failing to give a decent enough explanation as to why she and James need to be together besides Gerry being the biggest piece of shit on the planet. (Performance-wise, Paltrow is solid enough although in the choice between keeping up the accent or emoting, all her effort goes towards the former so she can be a touch flat in more dramatic scenes.)
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That’s kind of a massive killer for a rom-com, unsurprisingly, and the mutual exclusivity in the tonal outcomes of both timelines (save for a completely unearned last-minute switch) becomes borderline comical when it’s not being borderline contemptuous. Of women, of men, of love, destiny, fate, life, all of it, really. Sliding Doors reeks of cynicism and insincerity in the way all the worst rom-coms do and time has only increased its also-ran nature after Richard Curtis replicated and iterated upon the Four Weddings formula and style twice more. Hell, even Curtis’s massive downturn in quality hasn’t helped Sliding Doors’ standing any, since there’s no shortage of actual bad Richard Curtis movies to watch – plus, say what you want about something like Love, Actually, at least Curtis builds to giant iconic-aiming crescendos instead of sputtering out.
None of this is to say that Howitt’s debut is entirely without merit – Paltrow and Hannah, his direction is serviceable enough in that late-90s squeaky-clean-yet-relatable-London oxymoron favoured by filmmakers of that time (such as the also not-very-good This Year’s Love), and the macro-editing of the two timelines is always distinctive and clear (the micro-editing of individual scenes less so) – but in 2019? With literal hundreds of better options out there, many from this exact same rom-com boom period? You’re better off missing this particular train.