Serendipity (2001) — Nonsense wrapped around romantic fluff

“It’s such a nice sounding word for what it means: a fortunate accident.”

Clare’s rating: What can I say? I’m a girl. I like this kind of stuff.

Clare’s review: I liked this movie. It was sweet. Harmless. A nice diversion from my daily life. A good date flick. If you’re looking for something ground breaking or compelling or thought-provoking, you’re barking up the wrong date movie tree here. But if you can handle a somewhat weakly thrown together love story and enjoy John Cusack and need to bear witness to a highly romanticized version of New York City in these troubled times, you may well enjoy this movie.

Everyone is just so dang LIKABLE, it’s hard to really find fault in any of the proceedings here. It’s utterly predictable, at times almost cloyingly impossible and yet, I left the theater feeling better than when I’d gone in.

Serendipity is a love story about Jonathan and Sara who meet while fighting over cashmere gloves at Bloomie’s right before Christmas one year. If that’s not a NYC in the movies kind of moment, I don’t know what is. Flirty small talk ensues. Declarations about the belief in fate and destiny come from her while he pines away at her over hot chocolate clearly just wishing she’d give him her digits. You can tell John Cusack is playing younger in these opening scenes by the dork assed hair cut he always sports when he portrays anyone younger than 30.

Since clearly these two crazy kids have lots of time to kill and no hint of loneliness or desperation in their lives they decide they’ll leave it up to chance to ever meet again. Time passes. The film makers decided to write that information on the screen for us, but all they really need to do is place an arrow directing the audience to check out John Cusack’s coif and we’d all understand that clearly some time has passed and he’s found a competent barber in the interim. Both Jon and Sara start realizing that as they’ve gotten older (read: more desperate) it’s surely time to try to hunt down the one that got away. Let the wacky hijinks begin!

Now on to the scandalous portion of my review. There’s really no getting around what I’m about to say. So I’m just going to come right out and say it. John Cusack is kind of losing ground in the battle for my undying, eternal love for everything he does. It started a few years ago when he somehow justified participating in Con Air. He then followed up that horrifying mess by taking the lead in the extremely boring Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This unfortunate turn was followed shortly by what can only be described as his confusing decision to have anything to do with Pushing Tin.

Happily he redeemed himself and reclaimed his rightful place in my heart by wising up and doing both Grosse Point Blank and Being John Malkovich in the same year. Then High Fidelity came around. And while there are a number of things to love about High Fidelity, I can’t say that his performance in that fine film was one of them. He followed this mediocre entry with America’s Sweethearts, a movie that is so beneath his charm and charisma that I can’t figure out why he’d be offered or would accept such a stupid part.

A swift kick in the ass would be better than America’s Sweethearts, so there was no doubt in my mind that Serendipity would be at least marginally more digestible. It’s no Say Anything, but there are certainly elements of Cusack’s every man, frantic, loose limbed charm that are given ample screen time. The chemistry between Cusack and Kate Beckinsale is believable enough to keep the audience invested in the ongoing circus of events that transpire while they search the globe (mostly in NYC) looking for one another after one, seemingly destiny driven, chance encounter.

Despite my belief that I’m most usually not a mushy girl, I did get sucked in to the sense of urgency created while these two love birds worked against the clock and against their own love lives to finally find one another again. The inevitable pay off is handled quite well and warmed the cackles of my “there’s no damn way this would ever happen in real life” heart.

The thing that makes this movie one that I will probably see again is the wise inclusion of one Mr. Jeremy Piven. He (shockingly!) plays John Cusack’s best friend Dean. However, he proves once again just how damn underrated he is as a fine actor with a tremendous range who absolutely deserves to step out of John Cusack’s talent shadow and be given a role where he won’t have to play second fiddle to anyone. He’s funny, he’s charming, he’s sad, frantic, sincere, and interesting all in a seemingly effortless bout of fine, subtle acting. I just really hope he gets the opportunity sooner rather than later to showcase his talent in a project worthy of his time and energy. I’d line up and pay good money to finally see him be the one to get the girl any day.

I think it’s because Piven’s performance is so good that I couldn’t help but notice that John Cusack appeared to be phoning in his role (again). I’m not sure what the problem is, if there just aren’t any decent scripts out there for someone as niche marketed as Cusack or if he’s just lost his love for acting. It’s sad really. He kind of pulls himself up by the bootstraps at the end of the film by being able to convincingly shed one lone perfect romantic comedy tear. But compared to some of the acting he’s been capable of in past roles, his last few performances have been nothing less than a real shame.

Serendipity isn’t a great movie, but it’s certainly worthy of a lazy Saturday matinee.

Justin’s rating: The writing is on the wall, and it is in crayon.

Justin’s review: There’s a certain four-letter F-word that Hollywood is fond of pulling out of their pants pockets, giggling, whenever they’ve got you cornered in a theater. Fate. It’s one of the most basic scriptwriter’s tools — akin to a beginning theater student learning how to face toward the audience and not to milk the giant cow — to have a character in a film (usually drama or romance) to go off on an un-asked-for monologue about their belief in fate and how little “coincidences” are really linked together. It’s meant to sound profound and deep, but the whole concept of fate always, always comes across as a silly third-grader’s notion of desperately trying to assign order and purpose to the world without having to touch on anything religious. To have a speech about fate is, at this point, redundant; to wrap an entire movie around it is intolerable.

Serendipity, the hardest-to-spell romantic movie title ever, is certainly not the first romantic “comedy” (read: “There’s maybe two humorous statements somewhere in here that will allow us to bill this as a more upbeat flick, although no one will ever laugh while watching”) that slavishly adheres to the official Romantic Clichés playbook while tweaking just one teeny tiny aspect of the plot to make it a shade different than every other lovey-dovey clone out there. Serendipity’s two main characters, Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale), have a chance encounter at a store that results in a whirlwind (read: “tame”) date for the evening.

Problem one? According to Romantic Cliché Law, they’re both already dating other people. Ooh.

Problem two? Sara is a partially insane loon who surrenders her life to the grand poobah of Fate at the drop of a hat, and Jonathan is far too love-stricken to call a nut a nut and walk away. She writes her name and number in a book (and goes to sell it at some store) and he writes his name and number on a $5 bill (which is spent), and Sara figures that if Fate’s the overriding principle here, then somehow they’ll eventually find each other again. What are the odds? Pretty slim, actually, unless you consider that this is a contrived movie setup, in which case I think I’d bet the house on them hooking up by the end credits.

Fast-forward to the future, where (again according to Romantic Cliché Law) both Sara and Jonathan are on the verge of marriage at the same time to their respective partners, but they’re still somewhat obsessed with the “one that got away”, which Sara doesn’t admit is due to “her being a ninny-head”. The bulk of the film is them becoming despondent over their current relationships, them dragging their best friends (Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon) all over town on a whacked-out scavenger hunt, and the filmmakers putting in thousands of dumb “coincidences” that are there to simply drive the audience bonkers.

Let’s put aside the whole flimsy foundation of Fate for a minute, and really focus on what bothered me the most about Serendippiddydoodah, which is how casually the filmmakers treat Sara and Jonathan’s current relationships. Backing up a bit — just a bit — we have to understand that romantic movies aren’t necessarily about romance; they’re about keeping your two leads apart as long as possible until getting them together for a swooping kiss right when the movie ends. Romance in romantic flicks apparently can’t function after this point in a relationship, so movies rarely ever focus on an already in-love couple being romantic and having adventures and the like.

One of the more tiresome techniques that romantic movie writers use to keep their leads apart is by burdening them with current relationships that would otherwise make a new romance impossible. It works, for a while, but at a point the writers have to pen their way out of the old relationship to make way for the new one. This is when Romantic Cliché Law kicks in yet again, by showing the audience that either of the lead’s old boy/girlfriends were actually jerks or not right for them somehow, which makes it “okay” for the breakup.

Serendipity’s two fiancés of the leads are actually nice, loving people. They’re not jerks. Sara and Jonathan are obviously marrying them for a reason, which gives their current relationships more depth and commitment. And yet the filmmakers expect us to swallow the eventual dissolution of these relationships as the most natural thing in the world. I don’t buy it.

From the opening scenes, both Sara and Jonathan are showing us that THEY are the jerks, not their fiancés. They flirt without a moment of hesitation, and seem prepared to leave their significant others save for the wacky Fate thing. Maybe that was a sign they shouldn’t have proposed in the first place, do you think? But they did. Which then makes their mid-movie frantic search for the other person on the eve of both of their weddings downright despicable. They don’t really talk to their bride- or groom-to-be about their fears or worries about the marriage, they just try really hard to find the other “soulmate” so they can cheat on the whole current relationship and break it up. And I’m supposed to cheer these people on? On the eve of my marriage, I can assure you I wasn’t running around the country, best friend in tow, trying to find an old girlfriend to just see whether we were meant to be together or not.

I… I don’t know what to say about this movie past all that. It was definitely below all of the actors involved, and should be effectively forgotten by audiences in general.


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