Serendipity (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Serendipity is a romantic comedy from British director Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song, The Mighty) that pairs quirky, likable John Cusack with rising star Kate Beckinsale. All of the usual adjectives apply: sweet, cute, delightful, romantic, etc. Alas, there are also a few others that are equally valid: annoying, long-winded, and irritating. This is one of those movies that thinks it's building suspense and romantic expectations by keeping the characters away from one another for most of the movie. In reality, all it's doing is delaying the inevitable moment when they finally get together and robbing us of the opportunity to enjoy them interacting. I like romantic comedies where the characters spend time with each other instead of running around New York City and San Francisco, almost bumping into each other.

This is the characteristic that most annoyed me about Next Stop, Wonderland and, to a lesser degree, bothered me about both Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. Maybe I'm just impatient, but, for the hour during Serendipity when the two star-crossed lovers are trying to connect, I was drumming my fingers on my arm rest and muttering silently, "Just get on with it!" Then, after 60 minutes of teasing, the payoff is disappointingly short. I want to see the movie that comes after this one, when these two soul-mates start spending time in each other's company.

Cusack plays Jonathan Tragar, who meets Sara Thomas (Beckinsale) in New York City during the 1994 pre-Christmas shopping rush. They spend a magical few hours together in a romantic pseudo-reality, but then they must part, since both of them have significant others. But Jonathan and Sara sense they are drawn to one another by more than dumb luck or blind chance. So, to test fate, Jonathan writes his name and number on a $5 bill and Sara inscribes her information in a book ("Love in the Time of Cholera"), both of which are put into circulation (the money is spent and the book is taken to a used book store). If either of them finds the other's phone number, they will know they are meant to be together. Seven years later, they are still looking, although not very hard. But, as marriage approaches for both of them, little things remind Jonathan of Sara, and Sara of Jonathan, and the search begins in earnest - through department stores and warehouses, and from coast to coast.

Have I spoiled the ending? Yes, and no. Yes, I have told you what happens (at least in general terms), but this is what everyone seeing Serendipity will know occurs, with absolute certainty, before they walk into the theater. Enjoyment of this movie depends upon how much you like being teased. Please note that I'm not complaining about the fairy tale nature of the story, with all of its ruminations about fate, which I found to be charming. I just didn't appreciate being deprived of meaningful character interaction.

The chemistry between Cusack and Beckinsale is palpable, and, on those occasions when they are together (especially in the beginning), we notice it. They actors are appealing enough when apart, but the movie is at its best when they're on screen at the same time. The supporting players provide the film's dose of comedy. Jeremy Piven is Cusack's best friend, while Molly Shannon plays the same role for Beckinsale. Not surprisingly, the scene-stealer is Eugene Levy, whose deadpan portrayal of an uptight department store salesman is one of Serendipity's highlights.

Romantic comedy lovers will probably swoon over Serendipity. From my perspective, it's a lukewarm feature, but there are things to enjoy about it, and I have to admit leaving the film with a little smile on my face (rather than the scowl that has too frequently shown my displeasure with other movies this year). Chelsom does almost enough right to counterbalance what he does wrong. While I don't think this is the kind of movie worth running out to see, if you like sentimental pictures, you will probably enjoy what Serendipity has to offer.

Serendipity (United States, 2001)

Director: Peter Chelsom
Cast: John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Piven, Molly Shannon, Eugene Levy, John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan
Screenplay: Marc Klein
Cinematography: John de Borman
Music: Alan Silvestri
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:26
U.S. Release Date: 2001-10-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1