Before watching the movie:
Exploring parallel outcomes of a small change in one’s life is hardly a unique source of plot, especially since Many Worlds Theory entered popular consciousness. Malcolm in the Middle did an episode on what would happen depending on which parent chaperoned an outing, one of Community‘s most popular episodes traces seven different continuities, Mister Nobody follows a mind-bending number of possibilities, and Constellations recently began a Broadway engagement, just to name a few, and completely ignoring the countless examples involving time travel. However, there are two films that are always held up as the chief examples of the concept: the German film Run Lola Run, and Sliding Doors, both of which, interestingly, released in the same year. Perhaps that’s a part of why they both resonate so strongly.
I encountered Run Lola Run first, so I’ve always seen this as the English-language derivative. I expect it to be less experimental in technique and so more accessible, but that’s dangerously close to snobbishness. This is still an experiment in stepping outside traditional linear story, and highly regarded as such, for reasons I’ll now get to experience.
After watching the movie:
In both timelines, Helen is a reactive character, tossed one way or the other by elements in her environment. Even in the track where she takes charge and pulls her life together, she only does so because someone else told her to, and the plot is still about how the other people in her life interact with her. She never makes an unexpected choice or directs the plot in any meaningful way. While this is a story about how things out of our control can shape our lives, I would have found it more satisfying to let her rebel at some point before the two stories collapse.
While her Important Haircut is an easy visual marker of which version of Helen the story is with in the moment, there’s also a subtlety to Paltrow’s acting that demonstrates the differences in what the character has been through. Perhaps at times not subtle enough, but her lives have wildly diverged and a change is to be expected. John Hannah as James brings all the charm and levity he needs as a romantic comedy love interest, always the most interesting part of any scene he’s in. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Lydia as a pure villain, taking perhaps too much blame off of Gerry, but it leads to some darkly funny moments.
Neither plot track is really strong enough on its own, but aside from the basic concept, what keeps interest is the irony in juxtaposing them. That’s the main wrinkle in the film, which may be so concerned with keeping the alternative outcomes notion nonthreatening that nothing else really gets much complexity. The sadder path is a mildly dramatic tragedy, the happier path is a lukewarm romantic comedy. There’s some flirting with the idea of Helen getting information from the other path, but perhaps nothing comes of it. This is as mainstream and non-genre as an experiment in non-linear storytelling can get.
I would recommend this movie to people less comfortable with weird genre concepts, and I wouldn’t recommend against it to those more familiar. It’s not as meaty as I’m accustomed to, but I don’t dislike it for that. That fact makes me more likely to come back to it again, rather than wrestling with the ideas for a while and then leaving it forever. It delivers a concept and a mostly engaging narrative, so it’s accomplished what it meant to do, and that’s all I can ask.