Those are strong words, and while Peter Howitt's 1998 "rom" "com" may not be as morally objectionable as something like Triumph of the Will, nor as endearingly all-round inept as Troll 2, it's certainly the most offensive flick I've subjected myself to for a long time. But I can't say I wasn't warned.
Spoilers and overlong commentary for a 17-year-old film follow.
I didn't have much work to do in January, which is always a cause for premature apocalyptic paranoia about my impending destitution, so to fill the useless hours, stave off the emotional pain and distract my wife from her actual pain as she recovers from an injury (wait - your who? Try to keep up), we've been working through a whole load of sci-fi films together, of greatly varying quality. It's sort of a one-sided cultural exchange. It's not like I didn't ask for input.
Since we're not totally incompatible, there is an identifiable cross-cultural yolk in the centre of the Venn diagram of our tastes (I told you I haven't had much work, I need to get these words out somehow). Our ideal couple film is usually based around an interesting pseudoscientific gimmick that makes you think but usually falls apart under too much scrutiny, doesn't take itself too seriously, has a bit of romance (chicks, right?) and preferably doesn't have gloomy implications that leave Jackie a bit disturbed for the rest of the day. I've slipped up on that last one a couple of times. Best not crack open the David Lynch any time soon.
Since not every film can be as perfect as Back to the Future Part III in those regards, I've been taking some chances that have mostly paid off when seeking out things I haven't given a parental once-over in the past. But when my vague internet searches kept throwing up Sliding Doors as a possibility for Our Sort of Thing, I eventually relented against my instincts.
It's not an original stance to heavily dislike this film - Richard Herring shits on it often, but then he also doesn't like The Truman Show, and that's one of our faves. But since even Rotten Tomatoes critics let it off with a measly 63%, I don't feel the message is sufficiently out there: this might be the shittest film ever made.
Until the cold day in hell when I seek out Butterfly Effect sequels
The (Initially) Slightly Interesting Pseudoscientific Gimmick
All I knew about this film is that there's a scene early on in which a woman races towards closing doors on a London Underground train, and from this point on we alternate between her two radically different lives that resulted from the seemingly insigificant divergence of whether she did or didn't make it. That's fine as flimsy conceits go, and one that the rest of the film spectacularly fails to live up to.
Plenty of fiction has used that device to tell great stories. One of the best episodes of Red Dwarf shows how the result of a decision to hold young Arnold Rimmer back a year in school produced a pompous hero in one universe and a bitter coward in the other. Sliders was based entirely around trips to gimmicky alternate Earths with varying degrees of exaggeration and implausibility, though I can't remember if that series was any good as I haven't seen it since I was a less critical age when John Rhys-Davies' professor character getting replaced by some army woman with unnecessarily large breasts didn't even cause me to stop watching in protest. I probably thought it was for the best.
It's a trope that's been used a lot, but whether you're dealing with infinite alternate universes that divide infinite times with every shift of every particle, or keeping it patronisingly simple with a character choosing to turn right instead of left (a Doctor Who episode literally did that), it can still be thought-provoking when handled well. Sliding Doors doesn't handle it well, and if I wasn't such a nerd and this was my first and only dalliance with alternate universes, I doubt I would have felt inspired to apply it to my own life. But luckily I've done that already - don't we all have these prepared? I bet you haven't even drafted your loophole-free three wishes contract, have you? Amateurs.
As far as I can tell, excluding the amazing unlikelihood of my birth and all those times I didn't die, the most significant point in my own personal history might have been during the early afternoon of Sunday 21st March 1999, when I or someone else in my Dad's house either switched on the TV to BBC 2, changed channels to BBC 2 or we finished watching the latest video in the Planet of the Apes boxset and Lee and Herring's This Morning with Richard Not Judy replaced it on the screen. If I'd just stuck to playing Slam Tilt on the Amiga that day, or those later Apes films hadn't been so under-budget and under-length (Battle... is only 86 minutes long and it's still the most boring of the bunch, what a rip-off!), I might not have caught this antisocially scheduled cult comedy series that would eventually lead me to visit the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004, choose to 'retire' to that city after university and stumble onto the specific career trajectory and international life I have now.
"Do you remember the nineties, Stew? A-ha-ha!"
Still, at least that way I might not have ended up watching Sliding Doors. Or is that one of those inescapable constants that will always catch up with you in the end, no matter which path you choose?
That's right, this film muddles its own 'random incidents' concept by playing the destiny card, as (17-YEAR-OLD FILM SPOILER ALERT!!!) the Gwyneth Paltrow twin that survives ends up experiencing a situation much like her doomed counterpart did at the beginning, only several months later and with a lot of offensively terrible stuff happening in-between to get her to that point. On the plus side, if she had caught that train and arrived back in time to catch her boyfriend with another woman like her doppelgänger did, fate would have punished her for her insolence with a pointless, premature death, so make of that what you will. I've got nothing.
How Clearly Is This Film Not Written By a Woman?
I may not be qualified to write film criticism beyond having studied an 'ENGL 307: Literature and Film' unit as part of my English Literature degree (I somehow got away with writing about films and TV shows whenever I was supposed to be writing about books, and the one time I was supposed to write about films I wrote about a Dream Theater concept album instead. Maverick!) but I know what the Bechdel test is. However, you don't need to chart references to male characters in female characters' dialogue to determine whether or not a film is sexist when its female characters' lives are about nothing except the awful men they inexplicably find desirable.
Oh, and both the prominent women become accidentally pregnant as plot points too - one of them to different men in each timeline - because women are careless idiots like that. Don't worry though, this lingering plot point is swiftly taken care of by a fortuitous car accident once it's served its purpose and no longer needs to blight these characters' lives. Bye bye baby.
I know as much about the British rom-com tradition as a fan of that genre probably knows about the weird stuff I like, but I'm guessing that superficial women being saved from destructive relationships by a white knight are probably par for the course. Although I was under the mistaken impression that these saviours should be in some way attractive, charming or at least do something to balance the scales against their conquests. I've got nothing.
As I watched Gwyneth Paltrow fail to blank John Hannah's creepy, unsolicited public advances (let her read her book and deal with her own problems!) and laugh at his rubbish jokes, I flirted with the notion that the filmmakers might have done a good thing by going against the grain, not just casting Hugh Grant and writing his character as genuinely affable, but giving Gwyneth Paltrow an unconventional love interest who comes off as a bit weird instead. It's a testament to all the overlooked everymen of the world! But then he does Monty Python quotes and Gwyneth Paltrow really laughs at that, and you realise this isn't an everyman, this is just a nerdy comedy writer's wish fulfillment that somehow made it through quality control onto the screen. I hope any young and naive comedy nerds watching weren't taking notes.
Even her cheating boyfriend who we're supposed to hate - and who they have to go to monumental lengths to make less desirable than their leading man we're actually supposed to like - is a struggling writer who's obsessed over by a successful jet setter. She knows he's pathetic, a failure and prone to being unfaithful, plus he's got those weird eyebrows, but she still can't get him out of her head and abandons whatever day-to-day obligations she normally has to make her life entirely about stalking him. Dames, right? They can't resist a penniless writer. Don't write that one down either, kids.
If you've avoided the Sliding Doors train thus far in your life, you still have the chance to turn away and better yourself. The only silver lining I can see is that Gillian Anderson was supposedly considered for the lead role at one point, at the height of The X-Files' cultural penetration, so at least I don't live in the alternate reality where I just had to watch the respected Agent Scully laugh uproariously as an opportunist knobhead recites the Spanish Inquisition sketch verbatim. I don't deserve that.
If you have any suggestions for pretty-clever-but-not-too-nasty films we might like to watch together, those are very welcome. You can't be any worse at it than the internet.