From its beginning, Serendipity is charmingly retro with a touch of class. I don’t mean retro like bell-bottoms, I mean retro like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. And I don’t mean class like it’s actually really good. The cliches are not enough to make Serendipity interesting. Unfortunately, the predictability that was part of the charm of these earlier films do not hold our attention as well without glamorous song-and-dance numbers. Under the crooning of Louis Armstrong, the first visuals of Serendipity include the art deco lettering for Bloomingdales in New York City. We could be in a comfortable, friendly version of 1935. But we aren’t: we are in Manhattan of the recent past, inhabited by bustling folks full of Christmas energy (the film’s release was in fact postponed for some time). It was as if I had closed my eyes and pretended that 11 September never happened. The air in this New York is crisp, holiday bells ring, people with dark coats and red hats and mufflers carry shiny shopping bags.
Two of these shoppers are Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale). Simultaneously, they reach for the last pair of black cashmere gloves, just as Bloomies is about to close. Their eyes lock. Music plays. These two are destined to be together. In case we don’t get it, there are many, many signs along the way to tip us off: the gloves are key (gloves have mates—get it?), as is a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel about star-crossed lovers who spend their lives married to others and pining for one another. Searching for this book (which he hopes will lead him to Sara before his own wedding), Jonathan stands next to a copy of Alan Drury’s book, Decisions. Sara, meanwhile, has become a therapist who tells her patients that their fate is not predetermined. She is also engaged to New Age musician Lars Hammond (John Corbett), a self-absorbed Yanni clone.
But before all this, Jonathan and Sara spend a romantic evening, sipping fancy coffee drinks (in a café named Serendipity), going to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel (to ride the elevators, not to have sex), skating in the park while snow falls softly over the city—so much of a chestnut romantic night in NYC that it probably can’t even be parodied at this point. Despite Jonathan’s persistence, Sara won’t tell him anything about herself. Instead, she explains the title of the film (lest we not understand; after all, serendipity is a five-syllable word). Sara insists that if they are meant to be together, they will meet again, also by fate. Jonathan is willing to go with this, but still wants to get her phone number.
It took a good two hours of my time for Jonathan and Sara to make a decision about whether or not to be together, and this was nearly a decade in on-screen years. And while this process is predictable and cliched, it’s not at all bad. Part of the reason for this may be that this New York movie is being released during a time of national mourning for that city, with the threat of war hanging over us. The film offers absolutely no surprises—and therefore, no unpleasant ones.
As well, much of its appeal can be credited to the two principal actors and those playing their best friends, Molly Shannon and Jeremy Piven. As Eve, who owns a New Age store and mocks her customers behind their backs, Shannon is both comic and caring. As Dean Kansky, Piven reprises his relationship to Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank. While Eve functions as Sara’s tag-along moral support, Dean, at least, has his own rocky love life to attend to. Dean who utters the wisest line of the film, almost redeeming the sometimes syrupy romantic plotline. When Jonathan is essentially stalking Sara in San Francisco on the eve of his marriage to Halley (Bridget Moynahan) in New York, he and Dean end up flat on their backs (for reasons I wont detail). Dean explains: “Maybe you’re lying here because you don’t want to be standing somewhere else.” The notion that Jonathan is where he is not so much because he wants Sara, but because he’s not sure about being married to Halley suggests that, in addition to being destined for each other, Jonathan and Sara also provide escape hatches from what they feel are lifetime traps. While I don’t advocate this rationale for dumping a significant other, offering a rational explanation for impossibly sentimental behavior almost cuts the film’s sweetness to a manageable level.
Director Peter Chelsom manages to bring at least a pinch of the bittersweet mood of his brilliant films Funny Bones (1995) and The Mighty (1998) to Serendipity, although it is obvious that the new film is aimed at a very different audience, one determined by a studio. Serendipity‘s tag line is: “Destiny with a sense of humor.” I’ve always been aware that the gods must be laughing, so that idea is nothing new, but in this case, it’s really “Destiny with a cute and cuddly sense of humor.” Warm fuzzies abound.
Serendipity is not all sweetness and light, though. For instance, it’s not so nice that Jonathan is secretly yearning for Sara while planning his marriage to the lovely Halley. It’s true that for years, Jonathan does not know Sara’s last name or where to find her. And he doesn’t have sex with Sara when he first meets her, so he’s just lusting in his heart , and we all do that sometimes, right? The problem is that he’s not just carrying a torch; he’s borderline obsessed with Sara. As his wedding day nears, Jonathan becomes more and more anxious about locating her.
Sara has different issues, namely, she has obviously hooked up with the wrong guy in the form of dorky Lars. While appearing to be attached to him (she does agree to marry him), in spite of his embarrassing but successful musical career, she can’t help but think about what might have been with the more down-to-earth Jonathan. And while Lars seems to adore Sara, we know from the moment we see him skipping about on stage, playing some sort of Eastern music on a recorder that he’s not The One for her.
That’s a primary message of this film: if you’re not sure you’re with the right person, you probably aren’t. Depressing thought? Maybe. But Serendipity at least lets us believe that we have some control over the choices we make in our lives, a comforting thought right now.