“Serendipity” believes in romantic destiny the way Col. Sanders believed in Kentucky Fried Chicken. A blithe and unapologetic fairy tale about affairs of the heart, it’s a spun-sugar confection that’s so light and airy it threatens to simply float away.
Like “An Affair to Remember,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and almost any Hollywood love story ever made, “Serendipity” posits that everyone on the planet has someone he or she is absolutely meant to be with. Meeting that special person, however, is only half the game. Manufactured obstacles will need to be overcome, and, just as important, an audience has to be convinced to suspend its disbelief for the duration.
“Serendipity,” based on a smooth, eager-to-please screenplay by Marc Klein, has weapons that add some heft to its fluffy charms. In director Peter Chelsom it has a filmmaker with a feeling for eccentric comedy that’s far from standard, and in John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale it has stars who are appealing and believable enough to make buying into this artificial scenario a viable option.
It’s no surprise that New Yorkers Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Beckinsale) meet cute, both reaching for the same pair of black cashmere gloves at Bloomingdale’s during a pre-Christmas rush a few years back. Although each is in a relationship, the attraction between them is palpable, and remains that way through a movie-magical Manhattan day that includes a stop at the eatery called Serendipity, --a word Sara defines as “a fortunate accident.”
Sara, it turns out, is a big believer in fortunate accidents and things being preordained. “If we’re meant to meet again,” she tells Jonathan, “we will.” In a particularly farfetched move, she says she’s going to put her name and phone number in a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s copy of “Love in the Time of Cholera” she will sell the next day. If the universe wants them to reconnect, Jonathan will find the book and they will.
Now it’s “a few years later,” and Peter, a sports producer for ESPN, is about to be married to the lovely and unsuspecting Halley (Bridget Moynahan). But although they met “a million and a half hours ago,” Jonathan can’t get Sara out of his mind. Enlisting his best friend, Dean Kansky (Cusack’s real-life childhood friend Jeremy Piven), in his scheme, Jonathan becomes obsessed with finding this mystery woman before his wedding.
Sara, meanwhile, has moved to the Bay Area, where she’s also about to be married, to a New Age music star named Lars (John Corbett). But Sara too can’t get a certain person out of her mind, and she contrives to have her best friend, Eve (Molly Shannon), help her try to track him down.
Although they’re now fused to a decidedly mainstream plot, “Serendipity” contains many examples of the offbeat touches Chelsom put into previous films like “Hear My Song,” “Funny Bones” and “The Mighty.” There’s a Hasid glimpsed at a golf driving range, a Frenchman fanatical about the pronunciation of his last name, the Viking-heavy music video for Lars’ music group, and plenty more.
Especially benefiting from Chelsom’s touch is comic actor Eugene Levy. After a fairly standard turn in “American Pie 2,” Levy reminds us how funny he can be as a toweringly officious Bloomingdale’s salesman out to protect his turf. Also recovering nicely from a previous role (the love Interest in “Pearl Harbor”) is Beckinsale, who reinforces the strong impression she made in “Cold Comfort Farm,” “The Golden Bowl” and “The Last Days of Disco.”
Although it was filmed in Manhattan (and originally had some shots, since electronically excised, of the World Trade Center), “Serendipity” is set not in someplace real but a fantasy island best described as the New York state of mind. As long as movies believe in love, that locale will never go out of style.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, and for brief language. Times guidelines: classically genteel.
John Cusack: Jonathan Trager
Kate Beckinsale: Sara Thomas
Jeremy Piven: Dean Kansky
Molly Shannon: Eve
Bridget Moynahan: Halley Buchanan
John Corbett: Lars Hammond
Eugene Levy: Bloomingdale’s salesman
A Tapestry films production, in association with Simon Fields Productions, released by Miramax Films. Director Peter Chelsom. Producers Simon Fields, Peter Abrams, Robert L. Levy. Executive producers Bob Osher, Julie Goldstein, Amy Slotnick. Screenplay Marc Klein. Cinematographer John De Borman. Editor Christopher Greenbury. Costumes Marie-Sylvie Deveau, Mary Claire Hannon. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Caroline Hanania. Art directors Tom Warren, Andrew Stearn. Set decorator Catherine Davis. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In general release.