Serendipity

 
Laura Clifford 
Robin Clifford 

When Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale, "Pearl Harbor") both reach for the same pair of gloves in the midst of Bloomingdale's Christmas shopping madness, sparks fly.  While both were grabbing those gloves as a gift for a significant other, Jon wants to pursue possibilities, but Sara's a fatalist who believes that if they're meant to be, they'll be blessed with "Serendipity."

Laura:
Unfortunately, John Cusack, the romantic comedy lead of a generation, comes up 0 for 2 in 2001 (as has director Peter Chelsom following up "Town and Country").  While "America's Sweethearts" had its moments, few went his way, and the film, overall, didn't live up to its potential. Cusack is in his element here as a sincere, thoroughly charming, hopeless romantic, but "Serendipity" is a labored, joyless film.

Although it's obvious Jon and Sara have made a connection, Sara proceeds to throw up painfully obvious screenwriting 101 obstacles designed to keep them apart until the end of the film.  She has Jon write his name and telephone number on a five dollar bill which is put into circulation to see if she ever comes across it again.  To be fair, she writes her name (which she hasn't given to Jon) and number inside a hardcover copy of "Love in the Time of Cholera," telling Jon she'll sell it to one of the hundreds of used book stores in New York City.  To give Jon one last chance, she has him board a different elevator in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, spinning the roulette wheel on them both hitting the same floor's button - of course they do, but Jon is sidelined by an obnoxious tyke who hits the button of every floor in between and so he misses Sara by a hair's breadth.

Years later, Jon is engaged to Hally (Bridget Moynahan, "Coyote Ugly") but still pining for the mysterious Englishwoman, much to his best buddy, New York Times' obit writer Dean's (Jeremy Piven, "Rush Hour 2") consternation. Now in San Francisco, Sara's fiance is New Age Nordic flutist Lars (John Corbett, HBO's "Sex and the City"), yet she also has misgivings met with disgust by her best friend Eve (Molly Shannon, "Superstar").  As Lars' career threatens to overshadow their upcoming nuptials, Sara flees to NYC, dragging Eve along under false pretenses.

It's generally not a good sign when a film's stars' sidekicks generate greater empathy with the audience than the stars themselves.  Cusack mainly suffers from having to be attracted to a ridiculous character, but Beckinsale is forced to make one unbelievable move after another by Marc Klein's script. John Corbett does a bravura comic turn as Lars, generating some of the film's best laughs as the self-important, yet likeable, cult/trendy musician. Cusack buddy Jeremy Piven also gets mileage out of being the sounding board to, yet admiring of nonetheless, his dementedly romantic friend.  Molly Shannon, so fearless in the underrated "Superstar," makes Eve the type of feet-on-the-ground friend every woman should have.  Eugene Levy, as a Bloomingdale's saleman, is funny initially, although his presence in the film becomes more and more forced, particularly in the thud-echoing coda.

Director Chelsom, who created the whimsical "Hear My Song," vastly underrated "Funny Bones" and sweetly fantastical "The Mighty," can't obscure the rigging which holds up a plot that should be lighter than air.  Cinematographer John de Borman's work can't be faulted, showcasing NYC in all its romantic holiday finery and making the 'if it's meant to be-ness' ironic with timelapse overhead shots of New York City's everyday chaos.  Kudos to whoever created Lars' wonderfully wacky music and accompanying insane video.

"Serendipity" per Webster's dictionary is 'the faculty of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for,' while "Serendipity" the film strenuously searches for things that should just be, but aren't.

C-

Robin:
On a busy shopping day just before Christmas, Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) meets Sarah Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) over a pair of cashmere gloves in Bloomingdale’s. Even though each is involved with another, the attraction between these handsome strangers cannot be denied and they spend a wistful, romantic, magical evening wandering around Manhattan. At the end of their sojourn, Jonathan eagerly asks that they exchange phone numbers, but Sara prefers to let fate take its course and leaves their future in the hands of the gods in “Serendipity.”

I have always been a fan of John Cusack since he got his start in films like “The Sure Thing” and “Better Off Dead” back in the 80’s. He solidified his hold on being a lead in light, romantic comedies with “Grosse Point Blank” (as romantic interest and hired hit man) and, even better, “High Fidelity.” For some reason, this talented actor faltered with this year’s “America’s Sweethearts,” giving a by-the-numbers perf in a mediocre romantic comedy. While I didn’t have a lot of hope for “Serendipity,” I expected Cusack to lend, at least, to convey his usual charm as a focal player and not just part of an ensemble as in “Sweethearts.” “Serendipity,” by director Peter Chelsom, fails to capitalize on the actor’s inherent charm.

Using fate and destiny as the underlying message of “Serendipity,” the screenplay, by novice Marc Klein, tries to be an old-fashioned romantic fantasy about two people having a chance meeting, falling in instant love and forced to separate. Years later, Jonathan is days away from marriage to Hally (Bridget Moynahan) and he is having doubts about the wedding, still pining for Sarah.

When he and Sara parted, so long ago, she put her name and number into a book (“Life in Times of Cholera”) that she sold to a used bookstore. If he finds the book, she figures, then fate will take its hand. In turn, he writes his name and number on a $5 bill which Sara promptly spends with the notion that, if the bill turns up again, then their destiny is secured. Time marches on, though, and we come to Jonathan’s pending wedding years later. Sara, too, is about to be wed to musician Lars (John Corbett) and she is feeling pangs of doubt over her acceptance of her current future plans. Jonathan and Sara both begin a frantic search to find the other and prove, once and for all, that they are either fated to be together, or not. Of course, the bill and the book come in to play, one of the many telegraphed moments, as their paths cross over and over and over again. You can pretty much figure out what’s going to happen in about five minutes after the movie starts.

The acting is generic with Cusack’s cookie-cutter perf as Jonathan lacking any of the star’s usual personality. Kate Beckinsale is pretty enough as Sara but she, too, suffers from an underwritten part that relies on audience acceptance of the fantasy story rather than on character development. Jeremy Piven, longtime friend and colleague of Cusack’s, plays Jonathan’s best buddy, Dean, who uses his job at the New York Times to help his friend seek out Sara in a rush around New York City and across the country. The real-life friendship between the actors spills over to the characters, making for some of the film’s limited humor. Molly Shannon seems out of place as Sara’s best friend, Eve, who, unwittingly, gets dragged to New York to help Sara find her destiny. Eugene Levy, as a snooty Bloomingdale’s clerk, is here for comic relief and to aid in Jonathan’s implausible search to find Sara. Although Bridget Moynahan has the thankless role as Trager’s fiancée, John Corbett (HBO’s “Sex in the City”) gets the most mileage out of his character, Lars, Sara’s self-centered flutist fiancé whose specialty is New Age Nordic folk music.

If the reaction, from the women at the screening I attended, to the overt romantic schmarm that Klein’s script generates, then there will be a ready made market for a girl’s night out or as a date flick. (Guys, beware.) More mature audiences will not fall for the old-fashioned hokum and obvious sentimentality being generated. For example, when we meet Sara again, years later, she finds a huge gift package in her apartment. She opens it to find another box, then another within and so on. There were definite feminine stirrings in the audience as each box is opened until a small jewelry case is found at last. Buttons, I guess, are pushed for a reason, but they didn’t hit any of mine. I give “Serendipity” a C-.

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