USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes.

Cast: John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Piven, Molly Shannon, Eugene Levy, John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan
Writer: Marc Klein
Music: Alan Silvestri
Cinematographer: John de Borman
Producers: Peter Abrams, Simon Fields, Robert L. Levy
Director: Peter Chelsom


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

I n the movie High Fidelity, John Cusack suggests that, by spreading unrealistic and overly idealized notions of romance, popular love songs are as damaging to people's psyches as violent videos. The same might be said about most romantic comedies. They take place not in the real world, where you and I live, but in a magical place where fate brings soul mates together and love's intoxication never fades. Call it Romantic Comedyland. High Fidelity, a movie Cusack was instrumental in getting made, was about a thirty-something man who learns to let go of these idealized, Romantic-Comedyland notions and embrace a long-term, real-world relationship for the beautiful thing that it really is. How odd it is, therefore, that Cusack should turn his back on High Fidelity's message by starring in Serendipity.

Imagine spending a pleasant first evening with a woman, let's call her Sara (Kate Beckinsale), who at the end of the evening insists on leaving your relationship's future up to "fate." She has you write your name and phone number on a five dollar bill that she uses to buy some candy. She writes her own name and phone number in a book that she promises to sell to one of New York City's many used book stores, inviting you to track it down. If you are destined for one another, she says, the book will find its way into your hands and/or the five dollar bill will find its way to her.
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In the real world, this evening has just ended in disappointment, because this woman has suddenly and clearly revealed herself to be immature and flaky, possibly dangerously so. It's time to move on. But in Romantic Comedyland, she becomes all the more desirable. She is an obsession you cannot get her out of your head. However will you find her again? Are you indeed fated to be together?

This may all seem silly, because in the real world, people always put better versions of themselves on display on a first date. Compound that with the tendency to idealize a new romantic partner, and people don't truly get to know a new girlfriend or boyfriend until several months have gone by. But in Romantic Comedyland, it is possible to know whether you've found your soul mate in an instant.

In the real world, the best time to launch a full-scale search for a prospective romantic person with whom you really hit it off, but whose name and number you do not know, is sometime shortly after your encounter--perhaps by hanging out in the locations you spent time in (a favorite coffee shop is a good idea), perhaps through the classifieds, perhaps by talking the salesman (Eugene Levy) at the store where you met her into showing you the sales record for the gloves she purchased. But in Romantic Comedyland, the time to launch a full-scale search for this person is after seven years have gone by, and your own wedding is imminent.

Of course, in the real world, someone who waits until the week of his wedding to track down a person he or she barely met seven years previously is an unreliable cad--not someone you'd want to be romantically involved with, let alone marry. In Romantic Comedyland, such a person is an incurable romantic--a desirable partner with whom you can enjoy Everlasting Happiness.Piven, Levy, and Cusack on a mission

But would you even be able to find each other? In the real world, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing prints approximately 22.5 million paper notes a day, most of which are used to replace worn currency notes withdrawn from circulation by banks. Consider also that there are some 270 million people living in the United States, and the odds of a woman, let's call her Sara again, handling a five dollar bill on which a man, let's call him Jonathan (Cusack), wrote his name and phone number seven years previously is literally billions to one. Yet in Romantic Comedyland, it is foregone conclusion.

As you can see, the premise of Serendipity is stretched thin to say the least, which makes it impossible to get too emotionally caught up in the outcome. These aren't real people, and this isn't the real world. Any "truths" about love Serendipity uncovers are based on a false foundation. Serendipity is in fact guilty of all the preposterous romantic comedy conventions--all except one. Jonathan and Sara are called upon to evaluate their current long-term relationships based on their own merits--after they have seemingly lost hope of being together. It's a small thing, but it's nice not to see yet another declaration of love just in the nick of time, when the minister says, "Speak now or forever hold your peace."

Serendipity's one saving grace is its charm. Cusack and Beckinsale don't have great chemistry, but Cusack is one of the most likable actors in film--remember the tag line to Say Anything? "To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him. Diane Court is about to know Lloyd Dobler." Well, that's Cusack's on-screen persona in a nutshell. For her part, porcelain doll look-a-like Beckinsale has a dazzling smile and a British accent. We like British accents in romantic comedies. It makes us think of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones's Diary. (By the way, raise your hand if you knew Beckinsale was British. You know, Beckinsale, from Pearl Harbor and Brokedown Palace and The Last Days of Disco. Yeah, her. She's British.) It's no small feat of hers to make us root for Jonathan to find Sara, after Sara establishes that she's a dingbat. Jeremy Piven also makes his mark as Jonathan's friend Dean. He gets all the best lines and delivers them in a self-effacing deadpan without being too much the stereotypically wacky romantic comedy best friend.

If you're willing to take a trip to Romantic Comedyland, Serendipity is a mildly enjoyable date movie. Just don't take it seriously. Fortunately, Serendipity doesn't ask you to.

Review © October 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Miramax Films Corp. All Rights Reserved.

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