Movies that screw around with time and space often feel the need to spell out what's happening (including episodes of "Star Trek", where such things are par for the course). Even in such a basic formula like the "Back to the Future" films, there is a lot of time spent explaining how alternate realities work throughout. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, and I believe the entire Marty McFly trilogy stands on its own as solid entertainment. However, there is something to be said for conveying the information more subtly. Back in 1998, two very different films took a shot at this and both enjoyed some success at it.
"Sliding Doors" is the debut film of writer/director Peter Howitt. Our main character Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) works for a Public Relations firm and has a boyfriend named Gerry (John Lynch) who is still working on his book. She's struggling as the sole breadwinner and her life is a little bit harried. One morning, she arrives at work and discovers that she's been fired (or rather sacked. Gotta love that British parlance). On her way back home, she misses her subway train...and then doesn't miss it. In one reality she arrives home to find Gerry having an affair with another woman, in the other she arrives after the woman has left and is none the wiser. And here is where two different Helens take two different paths.
This film is incredibly elegant and the director's light touch never confuses the audience within the two threads. Of course, this becomes easier once one of the Helen's gets her hair cut and dyed, and it was a nice way to further make the distinction between the two. There is no overt visual motif that the director uses to cut from one story line to another. It's all very deft, and the director (and the editor) should be commended.
Paltrow is charming in this film, as always. Between this and "Shakespeare in Love", I'm beginning to form a theory that only films that feature Paltrow with a British accent are worth watching. John Hannah, who plays the equally charming character James, is also a stand out. It's because he's so good here that I cringe whenever I remember the awfulness of his comic turn in "The Mummy Returns". Here's hoping he pops up in a mainstream film soon that doesn't feature The Rock as a giant CGI scorpion.
If there's a weak link in this film, it's John Lynch as Gerry. How either Helen or his mistress could ever be attracted to this inarticulate goofball is beyond me. As admirable as Helen is, one has to wonder how she could never be suspicious of this guy when his attempts to cover up his affair are so clumsy. Later on, she does start to wise up and makes a accurate comment about Gerry's speech devolving into a poor Woody Allen impression. Although this movie is filled with kind of likeable British folks one only sees in films like "Notting Hill", they still fit nicely into the world that the movie creates. Gerry's character, on the other hand, is cartoonish and out of place. In a film that I've praised for its deft touch, he's anything but deft.
Before you get the impression that the film is completely Hollywood with it's likeable characters, there is an ending that may surprise you. That is, there is one ending that surprises, and the other seems to come and pick up where the first left off. Again, very nicely done. And very entertaining.
"Run Lola Run" is the work of German writer/director Tom Tykwer and is a bit more off center than it's British counterpart. Lola (Franka Potente) is in her apartment when she receives a phone call from her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). It seems he has misplaced a bag of money that he owes some criminals and, if he doesn't get a hold of 100,000 deutsche marks in the next 20 minutes, he's a dead man. It's up to Lola to save his sorry butt, and due to various decisions she makes, we get to see three different scenarios play out one after the other.
Unlike "Sliding Doors", these realities are not intercut with each other. We get to see the first scenario play out, and then we rewind to the phone call and see the second and then finally a third. There are a lot of different film making techniques at work here. Some animation is used at certain points. At other times, a quick series of still photos are shown illustrating the future of individuals Lola bumps into along her journey. Whereas "Sliding Doors" used the unusual setup to tell a pair of conventional stories that intertwined, "Run Lola Run" is all about using unusual techniques to tell unique stories. This is what impressed critics the most when it was first released and rightly so. It's a feast for movie buffs, and it's also simply a lot of fun.
Potente is a magnetic presence as Lola. This was her breakout film, and she would go on to impress American audiences with turns in "Blow" and the two "Bourne" films with Matt Damon. Here, however, she is the focal point with her flaming red hair and pumping arms as she runs down endless German streets. Potente is also given the chance to give depth to her action heroine through pivotal scenes with her Father, who is a bank manager and is one of the obvious places she starts her quest for the money. In many respects, Potente is fully up to the task of providing the emotional core of the film.
At first blush, Manni may seem as much of a doofus as Gerry when he leaves the money on the train, but there is some nice fleshing out of his character. In between the three scenarios are a pair of intimate scenes where Lola and Manni lie in bed together and talk. These really do a lot for illustrating their relationship, which is very key to the plot when you consider what Lola is willing to do for Manni in order to save him. No such scenes exist between Helen and Gerry save one where he takes her out for a night on the town, and all this really illustrates is that Gerry is a fun guy to go drinking with.
Although the alternate realities plotline connects the two films, the first is really a romantic comedy and the second is an avant garde type thriller. Both, however, are very good at what they do and should not be missed.
"Sliding Doors" - Eight out of Ten
"Run Lola Run" - Nine out of Ten