I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
I’ve lost a whole bunch of husbands to the temperamental MetroCard reader at my subway stop. “SWIPE CARD AGAIN,” it always flashes at me, holding me hostage behind an unyielding turnstile while one floor below, a train PA system is sounding its door-closing warning and a train is leaving without me, vanishing into a tunnel with the love of my life — whom I will now never meet — aboard it.
In 1998, writer-director Peter Howitt incepted a whole generation with this recurring-nightmare-fantasy scenario, by way of the romantic comedy Sliding Doors. An examination of how tiny, seemingly inconsequential moments can alter the trajectories of our lives, Sliding Doors is a perfectly light, frothy rom-com that improbably shoves you down into a bottomless funk of self-doubt right after the credits. I first saw Sliding Doors under the same circumstances that I saw just about every rom-com of the ’90s that I wasn’t quite old enough for: at a sleepover. Even then, it messed my brain up a little. Today, I believe myself to be one of this film’s most dedicated evangelists.
The central prop of Sliding Doors is, predictably, a pair of sliding doors: Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Helen, a plucky London PR rep, gets fired from her job early one morning, and when she attempts to go back to her flat, she finds herself racing toward an underground train car whose doors are about to close in her face. First, we see her just barely miss the train; swerving out of the way of a wayward child adds a crucial second to her travel time. Then, a rewind and a replay: This time, the wayward child’s mother sweeps her out of Helen’s way, and Helen manages to wedge her elbow between the swiftly closing doors.
From there, we see Helen’s life unfold in two versions: One in which she boards the train and makes it home in time to catch her boyfriend cheating on her and subsequently throw him out, and another in which the train leaves without Helen, her boyfriend’s dour American mistress escapes before Helen arrives, and the relationship and the affair both continue. In the first scenario, she turns her rock-bottom day into an opportunity for a life reinvention, complete with a new business of her own, a stirring fairy-tale love-story arc, and the iconic ’90s-era-Gwyneth blonde pixie coif. In the missed-train scenario, she descends further into her dire situation, taking on multiple low-paying jobs to support her lazy, lying boyfriend as he purports to be “working on his novel” (and she remains, sadly, brunette).
It’s a catchy sci-fi twist on the romantic comedy, and apparently a lot of people think about this a lot — including the writers of Jane the Virgin, who sprinkled alternate-timeline scenes into a second-season episode and called them the “Sliding Doors version” of Jane’s life, and the creators of Broad City, who kicked off season four by explaining the origin story of Abbi and Ilana’s friendship à la Sliding Doors.
Today, I think about Sliding Doors every time I barely miss or barely make a subway train (read: constantly), so a few Januaries ago, I made a promise: Every month, I would convince one person who hadn’t seen it before to watch the movie. I wanted company in the vague uneasy misery this dated romantic comedy had caused me, dammit. I went 1 for 12, but my lone convert did say to me, “Well, it’s great, because it invites you to question every decision you’ve ever made.”
“Yeah! A rom-com with a built-in anxiety spiral for afterward,” I replied. But then I had a revelation.
For a long time, I thought about Sliding Doors in the same anxious way my friend did: What if I’m not in exactly the right spot at exactly the right moment, and I miss the chance encounter that’ll give me the relationship I want, the career I want, the friendships I want? And, more sinister, What kind of bullshittery is going on behind my back that I’ve just barely missed catching in the act? Make one false move, Sliding Doors seemed to be saying, and you’ll throw off a bunch of potentially very good outcomes.
But as I’ve gotten older and watched the movie a few more times, I’ve picked up on a different message. At the end of Sliding Doors, the “bad” version of Helen’s life elides right into the “good” version; even in the “bad” version, the philandering asshole boyfriend eventually gets found out and dumped, the true love eventually gets met-cute, and the MVP friend comes through. According to the Sliding Doors philosophy, in other words, even when our lives take fluky, chaotic detours, ultimately good-hearted people find each other, and the bad boyfriends and home-wreckers of the world get their comeuppance. There’s no freak turn of events that allows the cheating boyfriend to just keep cheating, or the well-meaning, morally upright soulmates to just keep floating around in the universe unacquainted.
So in its own chatty English rom-com way, I guess, Sliding Doors is a feature-length, breathy-strummy-’90s-singer-songwriter-soundtracked meditation on the notion of karma. What goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, you get what you pay for — no matter how many subway cars rudely slam shut in your face in the meantime.