Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Parallel Lives

By Rick Barton

MAY 4, 1998: 

FILM: Sliding Doors
STARRING: Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah
DIRECTOR: Peter Howitt

In the midst of a very bad day, shortly after losing her job, a young British woman also barely misses her train home. That wouldn't normally be much of a problem, given the frequency of trains in the London tube, but on this day she encounters a huge delay when a breakdown forces her to grab a cab on the street. She's mugged and ends up in the hospital. What if things had gone a little differently? What if that child hadn't gotten in her way as she was running through the subway station? Well, in that case, she would have squeezed aboard her normal ride and gotten home just in time to find her live-in boyfriend writhing in the arms of another woman. So begins Peter Howitt's exquisitely well-made Sliding Doors, about as deeply satisfying a movie as cinema can produce.

Luscious Gwyneth Paltrow (nailing the British accent) stars in Sliding Doors as Helen, a stylish PR executive who is so good at her job that her jealous male bosses concoct a pretense to lay her off rather than let her show them up. Helen is in love with Jerry (John Lynch), the wannabe novelist with whom she lives and whose struggling literary career she happily finances. The problem is that Jerry is a neurotic scoundrel who has never been able to break off his relationship with a previous girlfriend, a London-based American promotional executive named Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In the main line of Helen's life, it takes a while for Jerry's failings to come clearly to light. But in that alternate reality, Helen loses her job and Jerry all in one day. The agony is horrible, but she soon finds solace in the attentions of another bloke, a charming businessman and sportsman named James (John Hannah).

Howitt's basic premise is nothing short of nifty, and his execution is a marvel. He quickly and artfully devises ways for us to tell which life we're in as he cuts back and forth between the Helen who catches the train and the Helen who misses it. In the early going, one Helen has a bandage on her face from her encounter with the mugger, while the other wears just the sad countenance of a woman done wrong. Later, when the injured Helen's wound has healed, the alternative Helen, wanting to break out of the funk of joblessness and a broken heart, opts for a radical new haircut. Thereafter, we follow as Helen No. 1 is reduced to waiting tables while Jerry fabricates long hours of library research to cover his ongoing trysts with Lydia. Concurrently, Helen No. 2 is beginning a romance and jump-starting her career by opening her own business. With terrific skill, Howitt interlaces these two stories, even taking the characters to the same locations at the same times.

I really can't rave about this picture enough. It is deliciously funny. Jerry has a sarcastic friend named Russell (Doublas McFerran) who reduces us to guffaws as he makes fun of Jerry's weak addiction to Lydia's shrewish charms. And the script develops its characters with terrific skill. Jerry is pretty much a weasel, but we pity him more than hate him. And though James is only average-looking, his intelligence and self-deprecating wit make him immensely appealing. Filmmaker Howitt even manages to deliver a third-act crisis that proves nicely surprising even if faintly contrived. In the hands of a less-talented writer, the problems that loom between Helen and James would require some stupid instance of uncharacteristic behavior. But Howitt critically refuses to allow his characters to act like nitwits. In the end, he even finds a surprising way to resolve the vast gap between the two narratives. And as the credits on Sliding Doors begin to roll, you want to leap up and yell, "Bravo!"

Mocking Big Business

FILM: The Big One
STARRING: Michael Moore
DIRECTOR: Michael Moore

Michael Moore rocketed to fame in 1989 with his confrontational documentary Roger & Me, in which the filmmaker tried to meet with General Motors CEO Roger Smith to explain what automotive production layoffs had done to Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich. Subsequently, Moore made a television series called TV Nation and then wrote the best-selling Downsize This, a humorous but studied attack on corporate irresponsibility and government collusion. Now Moore is back on the big screen with The Big One, a documentary about his 47-city author's tour to promote his book. As the author/filmmaker travels from town to town, he routinely tries to make contact with working-class people facing the uncertainties of the contemporary American workplace. And just as routinely, Moore tries to confront those bosses he thinks are insensitive to their workers' rights and welfare. In this regard, The Big One is a revisitation of the comedic guerrilla style Moore invented for Roger & Me.

In his promotional journey across America, Moore visits with laid-off candy manufacturing workers, explores the government subsidies to the Pillsbury Corporation, encourages the union activities of Borders Books & Music employees, makes a series of rousing appearances on college campuses, and challenges Nike CEO Phil Knight to open a shoe factory in Flint. And whereas it's altogether fair to observe that we are in the midst of an economic restructuring far more complicated than Moore is willing to acknowledge, along the way he does make important points about cruel aspects of contemporary corporate practice.

Indeed, Americans are enjoying an almost unrivaled era of prosperity with unemployment at record lows, but all the while, the largest employer in America is Manpower Incorporated, a supplier of temporary labor. Employee security, in other words, is not reflected by the low unemployment rates. American corporations, moreover, have embraced a culture of greed that is unconscionable. Repeatedly, companies close highly profitable operations on American soil and relocate manufacturing to Third World countries in pursuit of even greater profits. Despite record earnings, for instance, the Milwaukee-based company Johnson Controls relocates its production to Mexico, where labor can be found for less than one dollar per hour. Meanwhile, at the same time that national Republicans and Democrats alike combine to "end welfare as we know it," government subsidies to big business continue unabated. Moore points out that three times as many government dollars go to corporations as into welfare programs. And while 20 percent of America's children continue to live in poverty, with parents under-employed if working at all, companies like TWA negotiate contracts with penal institutions to use convict labor in their phone reservation system.

Moore gets The Big One off to a terrific start as he reveals scams he ran on presidential campaigns during the 1996 primary season. He formed a series of dummy corporations in order to make campaign contributions. The Satan Worshipers Society sent a check to Bob Dole, the Hemp Growers Association sent one to Bill Clinton, Pedophiles for Free Trade made a contribution to Ross Perot, and Abortionists for Buchanan sent a check to Pat Buchanan. All the checks were cashed. Throughout, Moore injects his social politics with biting humor, much of which leads us to laugh out loud. In the final analysis, though, The Big One manifests a mean streak that's a lot less charming than Moore presumably thinks. In one sequence, he humiliates an ignorant bookstore manager; in another, he torments his publisher's publicist by having security guards accuse her of stalking. Furthermore, the filmmaker seems to be altogether too pleased with himself. The people Moore discombobulates with his surprise appearances and ridiculous demands are seldom people of power or influence, just functionaries trying to hold on to their own jobs. Moore's making them look stupid and cowardly doesn't put a single unemployed worker back on the payroll. But just in case we don't realize what a hero Moore is, the film is rife with fans applauding his every indignant quip. And then, of course, there's that sensitive moment when he offers a hug to a Ford worker laid off earlier that day. He's really sorry, he assures her, and he wants her to know that she's not alone, that corporate America is treating thousands of other Americans just as badly. Yes, and that alleviates her pain exactly how?

It is disturbing to know that Nike pays Michael Jordan more money annually to endorse his line of shoes than it pays an entire factory of Indonesian workers (many girls as young as 14) to make them. It's disgusting to contemplate the astronomical rise of salaries paid to corporate executives in an era in which production wages have risen only marginally. And it's astonishing to learn that Nike CEO Knight has never visited the Indonesian factories where so much of his wealth is generated. But that hardly means that self-righteous Michael Moore is entitled to so much self-congratulation. He could be funny without being smug. And he would prove a lot more appealing if he showed a little more humility.

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