Serendipity already feels archaic, like some dusty relic that's been unearthed from an antique store attic and polished off for display. It reeks of quaint and cute, from its gauzy panoramas of Manhattan at Christmastime to its tattered plot of lovers bound by destiny to its scenes of travelers casually loitering in New York airports. The film most certainly exists in a pre-September 11, 2001, Manhattan: The whole city seems to be walking around with a grin on its face and a spring in its step; it's the Manhattan of Woody Allen and Nora Ephron and The New Yorker. Pedestrians stroll along downtown streets, dodging tiny snowflakes on their way to Bloomingdale's and coffee shops and skating rinks; they search for love, not loved ones. Serendipity could have been made in 1957 (when it was titled An Affair to Remember) or 1973 (when it was titled The Way We Were) or 1989 (when it was titled When Harry Met Sally . . .) or 1993 (when it was titled Sleepless in Seattle). But it couldn't have been made last week or tomorrow; the skies are too bright, the smiles too sunny.
The film also seems to exist as if to prove there are no new stories or no novel way to recount the old ones. It proffers such a tiresome tale that even its ending, obvious to those who will see only the poster and not the film itself, feels like an embarrassed shrug; it's less a tear-stained, heartwarming finale than a surrender to the stale inevitable. And it's of little help that Serendipity has all the warmth of a Pottery Barn catalogue, complete with the sort of soundtrack one can buy at the counter along with scented candles and chenille duvet covers. Romance in New York is, apparently, incomplete without being serenaded by Shawn Colvin, Louis Armstrong, Annie Lennox and a resurrected Nick Drake. Rarely does a movie feel so shrink-wrapped; you expect it to be marked down come spring.
That the movie is at all tolerable is due in large part to John Cusack, once more cast in the role of the hopeless (or hopeful) romantic who loses his mind when he loses his heart. This is the Cusack of The Sure Thing, Say Anything and High Fidelity -- the man-child in love with the Wrong Woman, the tousled hipster driven to distraction by attraction. Cusack, playing an ESPN producer named Jonathan Trager, is days away from marrying his fiancée, Halley (Bridget Moynahan), but obsessed with a woman he met years ago in Bloomingdale's, when the two fought and flirted over a pair of black gloves. Her name was Sara, an expatriated Brit played by Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor), and though both she and Jonathan were involved with others at the time, she beckoned him with gooey talk of fate and destiny. She even took him to her favorite restaurant, named Serendipity, which she kept explaining to him meant "fortunate accident," in case the dolts in the audience don't quite understand the film's title. (Never trust a film that mentions its title repeatedly; it's the Wang Chung theory of criticism.)
Though Sara and Jonathan spent only a few hours together, the two managed to convince themselves they were soul mates, two words that appear in Marc Klein's screenplay more often than punctuation marks. They part, but not before Jonathan writes his name and number on a five-dollar bill and Sara inscribes her vitals inside a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera; if the money again lands in her hands or the book in his, they'll know they're destined for one another. It takes only 90 minutes to find out how it ends up; if nothing else, director Peter Chelsom, responsible for far more idiosyncratic and engaging fare such as Funny Bones, seems keenly aware of how slight a story he's trying to tell.
Sara has since moved to San Francisco and taken up with a flighty, self-absorbed but ultimately loyal new-age musician, Lars (John Corbett), who comes off like Zamfir fronting Pearl Jam; we know in an instant they're not meant for each other. Halley, on the other hand, is sweet and endearing; her callous dismissal is not so easily explained, and Chelsom doesn't even try. But this is a film rooted in romantic fantasy; we're meant to laugh at others' foibles and heartbreak. It's too slapsticky to be taken seriously (especially when Eugene Levy shows up in an extended cameo as a Bloomingdale's sales clerk), too saccharine to warrant our sympathies and too familiar and formulaic to keep our attention. Somewhere in Hollywood, there's an unmanned computer churning out a dozen scripts like this each day; most merely end up as failed television pilots.
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There's ultimately little chemistry between Cusack and Beckinsale. He's too manic, she's too mild. He always looks sullen or crazed, as though he's about to tear up or break a blood vessel; she often looks as though she has no pulse at all. The most honest relationship is that between Jonathan and the obituary-writing Dean, played by Jeremy Piven, Jonathan's best friend and companion on his quest for True Love. Theirs is unforced friendship: Cusack and Piven grew up in Chicago and onscreen (they've co-starred in several films), and they possess a natural union, not one created when a director binds two actors together in a reel of celluloid. Had Jonathan and Dean wound up together, perhaps Serendipity would have become an affair to remember. As it stands, the whole thing's rather forgettable.