starring John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Molly Shannon, Jeremy Piven
screenplay by Marc Klein
directed by Peter Chelsom
by Walter Chaw Dense with the hip references and list-making that have become trademarks of John Cusack's films, Serendipity is a sweet confection just smart enough to be considered tasteful and just dumb enough to be forgotten. Set in the same New York as every bad Nora Ephron film (which is all of Nora Ephron's films), Serendipity is awash in a twinkling yuletide cheer and the kind of magical realism that South American authors have made their stock in trade. Perhaps not so peculiarly, then, it appears to be very loosely based on Gabriel García Márquez's star-crossed temporal love song Love in the Time of Cholera, a first edition of which plays a crucial role in the film. The book details a pair of young people who fall in love with each other over passionate letters and coded telegrams, but part when the woman falls ill upon their first meeting. Seeing it as an act of destiny, she marries a man within her own social caste, only coming back to her true love years after their initial opportunity was lost.
In Serendipity, whose theatrical release is about two months premature, John (John Cusack) meets-cute the beautiful Sara (Kate Beckinsale, in a star-making turn) one Christmastime evening thanks to a pair of black cashmere gloves in Bloomingdale's. They spend a night together that includes such romantic Gotham movie pursuits as imbibing elaborate coffee drinks and ice-skating at Rockefeller Center, and at the end of it, hippie Sara writes her name and phone number inside a copy of the Marquez novel, promising to sell it at a used bookstore the following morning. For his part, John agrees to scrawl his vitals on a five-dollar bill used to buy some breath mints; if they're fated to be together, the premise goes, the sawbuck shall somehow find its way back to Sara, and her copy of Love in the Time of Cholera will drop into John's lap. Years pass to find both engaged, not to one another, and thinking back wistfully on that snowglobe-perfect encounter.
Serendipity seems on the surface to be one of those ostensibly light comedies (that I hate) that concern themselves with ruining peoples' lives by leaving them at the altar. And yet the film manages to walk that thin line between glorifying infidelity and recognizing that sometimes your fiancee and your true love are not one and the same. Cusack and Beckinsale stay on the right side of the divide by bringing a surplus of charm to the table--he a smarter everyman than Tom Hanks, she a more versatile everywoman than Meg Ryan. Although Sara's betrothed as he's played by "Northern Exposure" alum John Corbett is too clearly meant to be some loathsome cross between Kenny G and Zamfir, and thus an unworthy mate, I was reasonably convinced that at least a cursory attempt has been made to convey the gravity of the decision to break-off a relationship the eve of a wedding. As they lie exhausted after a frantic search for Sara, Jeremy Piven's character Dean says to John, "Maybe you're lying here just to avoid standing somewhere else."
Through a series of cheerful, implausible near-misses, an obnoxious cameo by Eugene Levy, and starry-eyed banter with quirky best friends (Jeremy Piven, the funniest sidekick in Hollywood, and Molly Shannon), director Peter Chelsom tears a page out of countryman Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors playbook in presenting a romantic fable that is far more interested in chemistry than in narrative. Serendipity lives and dies by its cast; they make our suspension of disbelief an effortless task. (That said, it's difficult to dismiss the film taking place in a New York that no longer exists.) A playful fantasy with low aspirations, Serendipity is John Cusack doing Gabriel García Márquez. As bizarre as that marriage might sound, there's a lightness to the union that forgives a multitude of sins. Originally published: October 5, 2001.