review by Cynthia Fuchs, 12 October 2001


Up his sleeve


John Cusack has something up his sleeve. I just know it. I like to imagine that he's working towards another movie like Grosse Pointe Blank, the smart and unsappy romantic comedy he co-wrote and starred in a few years ago, opposite Dan Aykroyd, and oh yeah, Minnie Driver. He's building up good sport credits, stashing cash, looking for the right material, something. I imagine this, because I can't imagine why else he's made the two movies he's made most recently, America's Sweethearts and Serendipity.


That's not to say that Serendipity -- a mostly snowy, sort of holiday romance featuring a lot of ticking clocks, Louis Armstrong singing "Cool Yule," and Kate Beckinsale as Cusack's ostensible love object -- is as flat-out awful as the Julia Roberts vehicle. It is to say that Cusack can do better.


I also imagine that at some point, Serendipity probably looked better than it ended up. Surely, it looked like a fine idea to couple Cusack and Beckinsale (she's not Ione Skye, but she's entirely charming in her own way, Pearl Harbor notwithstanding), and it also must have looked good to Cusack to be paired again with his offscreen best friend Jeremy Piven, here again playing a buddy, even more incisively than he did in Grosse Pointe Blank, where they were, in a word, excellent together). And it likely seemed that director Peter Chelsom (who made Funnybones and The Mighty before he faltered -- appallingly -- with Town and Country) was going to be able to pull something clever out of the corniness, much like Stephen Frears did with Cusack's other recent romantic comedy, High Fidelity (which was mostly saved, it must be said, by the fabulous Jack Black).


Serendipity's story involves Jonathan (Cusack) and Sara (Beckinsale), who meet way too cute at Bloomingdales, each trying to buy the same pair of black cashmere gloves as a gift for his or her partner. As they battle wits in an effort to "win" the gloves, they realize that they're actually rather smitten with one another, though of course, neither can admit it or act like it. Or rather, both do act like it, but in that indirect, romantic comedic way: they flirt, they almost kiss, they really want to do right by their SOs, but they're so obviously "meant for each other" that their efforts to not be together are tedious from jump.


Never mind. Sara and Jonathan spend the evening fighting the future -- more specifically, having coffee at the sweet little dessert place across from Bloomingdales named Serendipity (so one of them, I think it's Sara) can define the word for the rest of us, then skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park, playing an adorable game where he writes his name and number on a $5 bill and she does the same in a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, both agreeing that if they are indeed destined to be together, they will indeed find these items sometime during their lifetimes. He thinks this is a bad idea. You might agree with him.

They have one more not-so-happy accident, during yet another let's-test-our-karma game, in which they each take a glove and board opposite elevators in the Waldorf Astoria, to see if they will hopefully, miraculously, fatedly press the same floor number. (To clarify, though they do press the same number, his elevator is invaded by a bad little boy who presses 20 more numbers in between, apparently just to mess up Jonathan's life plan). Poor Sara leaves frowning, in a haze of disappointment, and poor (with whom you spend a few more minutes, watching his desperate dashes in and out of the elevator, on ascending floors) ends the sequence wandering the snowy street outside the Waldorf alone. The camera pulls out, the scene fades to black.

Cut to a few years later. Jonathan's an ESPN producer (not a jock, but with appropriately masculine interests), engaged to marry the lovely and wealthy Halley (Bridget Moynahan), at the Waldorf, as a matter of fact. And Sara's moved to LA, where she's a therapist who counsels her clients on the utter fallacy of believing in fate, even as she keeps telling herself (and her best friend Eve [Molly Shannon, considerably less unbearable than she is when she plays the Catholic schoolgirl on SNL]) that she might just re-find that just-perfect-for-her fellow she met in Bloomies so long ago. She's got an obvious reason to be wishing for this unlikely accident, because she's engaged to marry a guy named Lars (John Corbett), a long-haired, new-agey recorder-player, part John Tesch, part Kenny G, part egotistical lout. When he proposes, he hides the ring inside descending-sized boxes, but as soon as she says yes, he's planning the honeymoon around his world tour's Bora Bora leg. It's a mystery why Sara's with him at all, except that she needs to be distracted somehow, to explain why she is so slow to pick up on her feelings for Jonathan.

And so, you wait for the inevitable. Sara decides that, on the eve of her wedding, she'll head back east, in hopes of running into Jonathan somewhere in New York City. Whatever. He has a bit more method to his madness: on the day of the big rehearsal at the Waldorf, he drags his buddy, NY Times obits writer Dean (Piven) along for several hours worth of chasing down clues to Sara's whereabouts. This is because he believes that his last-minute discovery of her credit card receipt, still inside the single black cashmere glove that he's kept all these years, is suddenly a "sign," some kind of message from Fate, the very Fate that he so disparaged when trying to convince Sara to give up her digits so long ago.

For you, this discovery is indeed fortunate, because it pits Jonathan against a persnickety Bloomingdales clerk played by Eugene Levy (essentially playing Jim's Dad Working in a Swanky Department Store: ah well, it's a living). Jonathan and Jim's Dad compete comically over who gets to be where vis-à-vis the gloves-and-ties counter (Jonathan is supposed to "behind the line," whatever that means) and whether or not Jonathan will ever see the information that he needs to save him from his non-magical match. That he's making the right move here, in spite of the cockamamie hijinks he endures and commits, is underlined every time the sweet but dim Halley comes on screen, which isn't so often, and each of her scenes is devastatingly foofy (as when she intuits that Jonathan is distracted, tearfully observing, "You've been somewhere else the past few days," just before she gives him the momentous pre-wedding gift, a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, the very copy that.. and yes, you know the rest.)

Though Chelsom deploys clever devices to make the movie seem slightly less formulaic than it is -- time-lapse photography and clocks to mark the passing of precious time, lovely shots of the city, looking quaintly serene -- it is what it is, a standard romance. The sad part is that Jonathan probably isn't so well-matched with Sara, who did send him off on that silly search for the book years before, but is pretty obviously well-matched with Dean, who not only tells him off when he needs it (like, hey, maybe marrying Halley is a bad idea, just in itself) and most importantly, he doesn't play those games that most all romantic comedy characters seem condemned to play. For a Best Friend, Dean is unusually complex, with his own relationship "issues," and sincere good will toward his fretful pal and the girl he thinks he loves, though it's his job to live vicariously through Jonathan's romantic success, Piven's witty, understated performance makes Dean the movie's most serendipitous element.

Yet, Chelsom and company appear overwhelmed by the premise of Marc Klein's screenplay, which is simply too syrupy, this despite the fact that the dialogue is occasionally crisp (especially when deftly delivered by Jeremy Piven) and its self-conscious allusions to those crazily classy Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers plots, what with all the chance meetings and preposterous coincidences and soulmates-made-in-heaven stuff. Surely, such grandly movie-ish machinations are hard to overcome. But then… Grosse Pointe Blank did it, right?

Directed by:
Peter Chelsom

John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Molly Shannon, Jeremy Piven, John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan, Eugene Levy

Written by:
Mark Klein

PG13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.




  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.