Clearly aiming to locate remnants of the "Four Weddings and a Funeral" mother lode, "Sliding Doors" is a frothy, lightweight romantic comedy that strives to seem richer and more complex than it really is.

Clearly aiming to locate remnants of the “Four Weddings and a Funeral” mother lode, “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 here making his big-screen writing and directing debut, has whipped up a concoction with enough quick wit and charm to make this a surefire audience pleaser for the dating crowd and couples, providing Miramax ample opportunity to give these “Doors” a good commercial spin. This Miramax-Paramount co-venture, which serves as a solid star vehicle for Gwyneth Paltrow, opened the Sundance Film Festival Thursday night and will bow commercially in the spring.

If Howitt the director had 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 pic’s flat, conventional style and the almost grotesque direction of the principal supporting players rep significant drawbacks that prove only more debilitating as the story’s crisscrossed predicaments become increasingly complicated.

Film has no trouble pulling the viewer quickly into its heroine’s camp. Before the opening reel is finished, saucy young Helen (Paltrow) is fired from her job at a tony London PR firm, mugged by a purse-snatcher and jilted by her live-in boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch). And while she is indeed being betrayed by Gerry, the latter turn of events is one Helen sees only in her fantasy life, an alternative reality that is triggered when the sliding doors of a tube car close on her and she imagines what might have happened had she made the train.

Duration of the picture plays out on parallel tracks. While in her fantasy Helen arrives home early to find Gerry in the sack with his former g.f., Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn), in real life she only vaguely suspects something based on odd hints. In her imagined view of events, Helen’s pain at being betrayed by Gerry is gradually offset by the amusing and increasingly amorous attentions of James (John Hannah), an irrepressible chap who nearly always says exactly the right thing.

Unsurprisingly, the fantasy thread of the yarn proves more fun for both Helen and the audience; in it, she stays at the flat of a friend (Zara Turner), cuts her brown hair short and dyes it blond, has photogenic fun dates with James, and launches her own PR office with the successful promotion of a trendy new restaurant.

Reality, of course, is more of a drag, with Helen reduced to waiting tables and delivering sandwiches, and becoming unexpectedly pregnant by the man who is so blatantly cheating on her that it’s only a matter of time until she finds out for sure.

In fact, it is the infidelity subplot that cripples the picture more than anything. Gerry, who is deftly derided by a friend as “a morality-free zone,” spends most of his time in an unflattering defensive mode and seems like an utter fool for two-timing Helen with Lydia. Latter is written, and played by Tripplehorn, as a monstrous shrew without a single redeeming feature that might explain her sustained appeal to Gerry. Tripplehorn is even photographed grotesquely at times, as if the film needed to further underline her unrestrained bitchiness.

Presence of these two characters you just wish would go away places all the burden on the romantic leads, and they come off more felicitously. 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. Hannah, who appeared in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” makes James almost impossibly charming and tactful, and one can almost hear Hugh Grant delivering the same pithy lines.

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. Tech credits are routine but bright, led by a bouncy and busy soundtrack of songs.

Sliding Doors

British-U.S.

Production

A Miramax release (in U.S.) of a Miramax and Paramount presentation, in association with Intermedia Films, of a Mirage production. Produced by Sydney Pollack, Philippa Braithwaite, William Horberg. Executive producers, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair. Directed, written by Peter Howitt.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Remi Adefarasin; editor, John Smith; music, David Hirschfelder; production design, Maria Djurkovic; art direction, Martyn John; costume design, Jill Taylor; sound (Dolby digital), John Midgley; assistant director, Richard Whelan; casting, Michelle Guish. Reviewed at Sunset screening room, L.A., Jan. 13, 1998. (In Sundance Film Festival -- opening night.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Helen - Gwyneth Paltrow James - John Hannah Gerry - John Lynch Lydia - Jeanne Tripplehorn Anna - Zara Turner Russell - Douglas McFerran Clive - Paul Brightwell Claudia - Nina Young James' Mother - Virginia McKenna
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