A romantic bauble set in an impossibly glamorous New York City that seems even more like a fantasyland in the current context, “Serendipity” will serve as an excellent gauge of any viewer’s tolerance level for schmaltzy contrivance and manipulation. Diverting on the most superficial planes of physical attractiveness, wish fulfillment and happy ever-aftering, Peter Chelsom’s attempt at a rebound from “Town & Country” reps a sort of repackaging of “Sleepless in Seattle” in fancy new wrapping. With a couple of quick shots of the World Trade Center reportedly on the way out after the Toronto premiere, Miramax should expect serviceable returns from this unabashed “chicks’ movie” upon domestic release Oct. 5.
Totally devoted to the notion that there is One Special Someone out there for everyone, the first produced screenplay by Marc Klein also requires that lightning strike not once but twice in the case of the central couple, who tempt fate by playing a silly game on the night of their first meeting that makes the odds of their ever finding one another again very remote.
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The sentiments at the heart of the picture are highly romantic ones that many people can buy into, but the massive pile of hasty decisions, close calls, mad dashes and chance encounters accumulate into a mountain of artifice that will (at least) roll the eyes or (at most) gag anyone with a dominant sense of reason.
To pic’s credit, opening “meet cute” between the principals is engaging and instantly establishes an obstacles-be-damned rooting interest in them. After good-naturedly tussling over the last pair of black cashmere gloves at Bloomingdale’s, an attractive young fellow in his mid-30s and a mid-20s British beauty spend 20 minutes of screen time realizing they are meant for each other while grabbing a bite at the eponymous restaurant, ice skating in Central Park and bantering in a lightheartedly clever manner.
Entirely too attached to a belief in “fortunate accidents,” the young lady, who insists until the last minute that they don’t exchange names, tempts fate once too often by suggesting that they each get on separate elevators at the Waldorf-Astoria: If they get off on the same floor, it means they’re destined for one another; if not, c’est la vie.
Well, they both head for the top floor but she catches the express while he gets stuck on the local, so they just miss each other.
A few years later, Jonathan (John Cusack) is within days of marrying another dark-haired honey, Halley (Bridget Moynahan); while out in San Francisco, Sara (Kate Beckinsale) is having the question popped to her by laughably New Agey pop star Lars (John Corbett). Despite all the time that’s passed, Jonathan still can’t get over the girl who got away and, with the help of nebbishy best buddy Dean (Jeremy Piven), launches into a desperate last-minute search for his inamorata that involves some very comical antics as he tries to get her name from an officious Bloomingdale’s clerk (Eugene Levy).
At the same time, Sara tells Lars she needs a “break” and jets off to Gotham with her best friend Eve (Molly Shannon) with the secret agenda of tracking down Jonathan before making up her mind about Lars. At the Waldorf, Eve bumps into Halley, an old college friend (natch) who impulsively invites her to her wedding. On the eve of the latter event, credulity is stretched well past the breaking point as Jonathan and Dean, having established Sara’s whereabouts, fly to San Francisco, only to mistake Kate’s sister for the woman they’re looking for and give up the game for good.
It would be spoiling everything and, given the tale’s inevitability, nothing at all to reveal what happens once Jonathan and Dean wearily return to Manhattan. As a fairy tale, pic is sufficiently fanciful and sprightly to satisfy the sort of easily seduced audience for which it is intended. But it is so calculated, and so familiar in its narrative trappings, character types and gentrified coziness, that there is a great deal that a reasonably seasoned – and certainly a sophisticated – audience would choose to resist.
As far as Chelsom is concerned, at least this plays, which “Town & Country” emphatically did not. Yet pic is all but drained of the distinctive and unusual colorings that graced “Hear My Song” and especially “Funny Bones.”
“Serendipity” does deliver an ultra-romanticized vision of a New York aglow with glorious urban spaces, beautiful people and the warm potential of eternal love. Cusack and Beckinsale spark well in the opening reel and remain nothing short of energetic and appealing the rest of the time. But Piven’s comic relief and Shannon’s best friend are far too on-the-money sitcommy. Tech contributions are tops, with Toronto shooting having seamlessly been worked into Gotham locationing.
Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Galas), Sept. 13, 2001. Running time: 90 MIN.