A coin flip splits the new movie “Uncertainty” in two. That’s how a young couple (played by Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at a turning point in their relationship decide which way to go on the Brooklyn Bridge. Who picks heads over tails ultimately isn’t important, because the film follows both paths — in one storyline, the two head to Manhattan, find a cell phone in a cab and become embroiled in a thriller, while in the other, they go to a family barbecue in Brooklyn and navigate more personal dramas. Which reality is the “real” one? The title should give you a clue.
“Uncertainty”‘s not the first film to explore those what-if musings we’ve all indulged in, the ones that every holiday season drive George Bailey to an angelic vision of what the world would be like if he’d never existed. But it is one of a select group of movies to be structured around that idea of forking paths, of returning to a certain point and trying things another way, or in another setting, or just another frame of mind. Here are a few more films built around alternate realities.
“Sliding Doors” (1998)
Directed by Peter Howitt
A girl steps in front of Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) as she’s running down the stairs and she misses her subway. Then, as chimes twinkle on the soundtrack, the film rewinds before our eyes, the girl is pulled out of Helen’s way, and she narrowly makes it onto the train. Missing a train doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but it is in “Sliding Doors,” where that split second has enormous and even fatal consequences for Helen. To borrow the train metaphor, from that moment, Helen’s life travels down two diverging tracks. In one, she arrives home in time to find her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) cheating on her, which leads to her move out and start a relationship with a man she met on the Tube named James (John Hannah). In the other, she’s mugged and gets home too late to discover Gerry’s affair, so she continues the relationship with him instead of James. Director Peter Howitt cuts back and forth between the two Helens, contrasting the one who makes the train and lives a romantic life with a new job, a new man and a new haircut with the one who doesn’t and leads a sad life supporting a man she doesn’t realize is unfaithful. Though he plays with symmetries, Howitt gives the two Helens’ stories wildly different outcomes; suddenly, the seemingly “unhappy” timeline becomes the more desirable one. Such an ending would be dramatically unsatisfying in a traditional movie, but in one about the random nature of life, the deus ex machina feels entirely appropriate.
“Me Myself I” (1999)
Directed by Pip Karmel
It’s an old relationship that Pamela Drury (Rachel Griffiths) can’t forget in Pip Karmel’s Australian comedy, or maybe just the possibilities that come with it. Lonely, successful and thirtysomething (like so many a rom-com heroine!), Pamela finds herself wondering what her life would have been like if she’d married Robert Dickson (David Roberts), the man she dated over a decade ago. That could-have-been universe comes (literally) crashing into hers in the form of another Pamela (also played by Griffiths) who, it turns out, did marry Robert and has three kids with him, and who swaps places with our tragic singleton, dumping her into a world of housework, conjugal relations and the expected fish-out-of-water hijinks. “Me Myself I” may offer its main character a look into another world, but it doesn’t offer much insight into its own. There’s no explanation for the existence of Alt Pamela — which is fine, and comfortably within the bounds of movie whimsy. Not fine is the fact that both its portrayals of married and single life are hopelessly cliché-ridden. But Griffiths is and has always been an immensely watchable actress. She manages to bring more shades of gray to this film than it really deserves.
“Blind Chance” (1987)
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
“Sliding Doors”‘ concept and structure obviously owe a debt to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blind Chance,” another film about the variety of directions life might take based on the simple act of either catching or missing a train. In “Blind Chance,” though, the protagonist follows three distinct paths instead of “Sliding Doors”‘ two, and the stories are played consecutively instead of simultaneously. In the first and longest sequence, a med school dropout named Witek (Boguslaw Linda) catches his train. While on it, he encounters an old Communist, and eventually decides to join the Party. In the second sequence, he narrowly misses the train and knocks over a policeman in the process. Sent to jail, he meets members of the anti-Communist underground and eventually decides to join their group. In the third and shortest sequence, he misses the train by a wider margin, and finds Olga (Monika Gozdzik) looking for him on the platform. They begin an affair and Witek decides to return to school, become a doctor, and start a family. “Sliding Doors” examines how luck affects our romantic destinies; “Blind Chance” explores its impact on our politics. Witek’s three lives represent three political alternatives: either action on one side or the other or complete abstention from the process. The fact that such an inconsequential event propels Witek toward such radically different outcomes suggests that for Kieslowski, belief, like life in general, is based as much as chance and proximity to others as it is on careful consideration or debate.
“Melinda and Melinda” (2004)
Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen is a celebrated atheist, but he does believe in God, at least in his fiction. On the surface, Woody Allen’s multiverse movie “Melinda and Melinda” is about a couple of playwrights debating the nature of existence by using the same set-up — a troubled woman crashes a dinner party — to tell two different stories. Really, what they’re doing though is playing God with the life of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), tossing her from one calamity to the next. The playwrights argue whether life is inherently comic or tragic and try to prove their point through their individual interpretations of Melinda’s life. In doing so, we see how God might behave if He were working out of a sense of humor or a sense of sadism. Though “Melinda”‘s competing fictions only share one character, many events, locations and even lines of dialogue reoccur. In both, someone craves a single malt scotch. In both, someone tries to commit suicide by jumping out a window. So does that make life funny or sad? Wallace Shawn, who plays the comedy writer, gets the final word: “Comic or tragic, the most important thing to do is to enjoy life while you can,” he says, “because we only go around once and when it’s over, it’s over.” Here is Allen the atheist, telling us exactly what the doctor told a young and depressed Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall.” But then Shawn continues, “When you least expect it, it could end like that!” With a snap of Shawn’s fingers, the movie is abruptly ended. Here is Allen, the believer, saying that when you make a movie, you get to play God, at least for a little while.