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Cusack, Beckinsale leave romance to chance in 'Serendipity'

Friday, October 05, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In movies such as "Sleepless in Seattle," "The Wedding Planner" and "You've Got Mail," you're never supposed to think (much) about the nice person who gets ditched when Destiny comes a calling.


RATING: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief language.

STARRING: John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale

DIRECTOR: Peter Chelsom

WEB SITE: www.serendipity



Remember poor Walter in "Sleepless." As played by Bill Pullman, he was a perfectly decent person who was beset by allergies and the inability to be Meg Ryan's soulmate. "Wedding Planner" solved the problem by having Matthew McConaughey's fiancee get cold feet. In "You've Got Mail," we knew the other halves of the Ryan-Tom Hanks coupling could thrive without them.

Now comes "Serendipity," a romantic comedy starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale as strangers who reach for the same pair of black cashmere gloves in Bloomingdale's days before Christmas.

Jonathan (Cusack) and Sara (Beckinsale) are seeing other people but they feel an instant connection and retreat to a restaurant called Serendipity, which Sara loves because of the name. "I believe the fates are behind everything," Sara says, sometimes sounding as if she put the "dip" in serendipity.

The two spend a wonderful evening together and, at Sara's insistence, place their future in the hands of destiny. He writes his name and phone number on a $5 bill and she scribbles hers inside a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," which she plans to sell to an unidentified used book store. If the bill or book resurface, it will be a sign they are meant to be together.

The action then switches to "a few years later" when Jonathan is still in New York and days from marrying a woman named Halley (Bridget Moynahan). Sara now lives in San Francisco and is planning to wed a goofy but apparently good-hearted musician (John Corbett, pre-"Sex and the City" makeover).

But Jonathan and Sara have a nagging feeling that maybe they're marrying the wrong people and need to resume their search for the person who shared that magical night. Jonathan enlists his best man (Jeremy Piven), while Sara turns to a California friend (Molly Shannon). "Serendipity" follows their journey, even as the wedding ceremony for Jonathan moves ever closer.

"Serendipity," directed by Peter Chelsom whose fine body of work includes "The Mighty," "Funny Bones" and "Hear My Song," is a handsomely photographed movie with two attractive stars. Beckinsale, especially, is still a fresh face who looks different here than in last summer's "Pearl Harbor" in which she played a nurse torn between Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. At 35, Cusack can still be a convincing bundle of boyish charm and impulsive behavior.

The movie capitalizes on the inherent romance of Christmas in Manhattan although since some filming was done in August, you never see anyone's frosty breath and the snow is spotty, at best. It makes excellent use of time-lapse photography, a device that is both dazzling and efficient for a 90-minute story.

But it seems derivative of previous romantic comedies such as "Sleepless in Seattle," down to its use of an opening Louis Armstrong tune. And, unlike the string of movies mentioned in the first paragraph, it fails to make the other halves of this fated couple properly awful or ill-suited so you cannot wait to jettison them.

Like "Sleepless," though, "Serendipity" is all about the cross-country search. Some of the methods employed and characters who crop up, especially Eugene Levy as a foxy store clerk, are clever. Not clever enough to make this feel truly fresh, though. And in keeping with the structure of such movies, the romantic leads spend most of the film apart.

I saw this movie the night before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and I didn't really pay attention to the World Trade Center looming in a background shot. It since has been removed, apparently so it doesn't distract or upset the audience.

The world may be ready to sink into a safe, old-fashioned New York with twinkly Christmas lights, a bustling Bloomie's, Waldorf-Astoria and Wollman Rink in Central Park. As Hollywood learned this fall, sometimes it's all about the timing.

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