WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: A chance meeting between Christmas shoppers Jonathan and Sara in a New York department store appears to promise great things; but Sara isn‘t so sure and lets the stars decide what happens to them. Some years later, both are destined to be married to others, yet the evening the pair spent together has stuck in both their minds; and if fate hasn’t yet brought them together, perhaps there’s something they can do to give it a helping hand.
It’s a case of glove at first sight (sorry) when New Yorker Jonathan (John Cusack) meets pretty English girl Sara (Kate Beckinsale) at the accessories counter in Bloomingdale’s. Adjourning to the nearby Serendipity bistro-cum-store, the pair discover that they each have significant others; but this doesn’t stop them spending the rest of the evening in each other’s company, playing hide and seek in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, skating, star-gazing and what have you.
As far as Jonathan’s concerned, he’s met his perfect match. Sara, however, is a quixotic miss who believes that if something is meant to happen, it‘ll happen; so instead of giving Jonathan her number or surname, she declares that she will write it in a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera and give it to one of New York’s many second-hand bookstores; for his part, Jonathan writes his name and number on a five-dollar bill which, if it mystically finds its way back to Sara, will be a sign that their relationship is meant to be.
Several years later, it looks as though it wasn’t meant to be. Jonathan is all set to marry the lovely Halley (Bridget Moynahan) at the Waldorf, whilst Sara is in California, dating long-haired shanai blower Lars (John Corbett). On the surface, all is well as Lars also has marriage on his mind; but she can’t forget Jonathan and, hoping against hope, takes a trip back to New York with new-age (but deeply cynical) shop owner Eve (Molly Shannon). Meanwhile, Jonathan and his anxious best man Dean (Jeremy Piven) head back to Bloomingdale’s to trace Sara, starting only with a receipt containing her Bloomingdale’s account number. As the hours count down to the wedding, the pair race around the Big Apple, missing each other by seconds at various landmarks. Will true love find a way? Hey, it’s written in the stars.
Fine romances – An Affair to Remember, say, or Sabrina or When Harry Met Sally – wear their contrivances easily, throwing lovers in each others’ paths willy-nilly and inviting the viewer to think nothing of it. Conversely, by making chance events (the ‘return’ of Jonathan’s banknote especially) the crux of the film, Serendipity loses the frothy playfulness that makes better films bounce along. Instead, it throws the long-winded set-up at the audience then makes us do all the work. Lazily, the film demands that we fall so much in love with the idea of Sara and Jonathan’s destiny that we completely overlook the fact that much of the film is missing.
And make no mistake, Serendipity asks us to fill in parts of the plot that, were they shown to us, would provide much-needed emotional excitement: Jonathan explaining to Halley (possibly at the wedding), or Sara explaining to Lars, where their destinies truly lie and why the book/New York had such significance to them; or Jonathan confronting Sara over what he thought he saw when he and Dean finally found her house. But it’s all left out and the viewer has to fill in the gaps from their residual sense of romantic comedies.
This approach would be fine if either Jonathan or Sara remotely displayed the charisma needed to distract us from the fact that nothing is going on around them. But whilst Cusack is competent in a ’this is paying for my condo’ way, Beckinsale is horribly ineffective as Sara. She’s clearly meant to be scatty and impulsive, but she’s far too mannered for the part and even manages to make her own accent sound off (it’s as though she’s doing an English accent for American consumption, with too much enunciation and too little emotion). Perhaps she’s exacting British revenge for Andie MacDowell’s turn in Four Weddings; she certainly doesn’t win many hearts and her chemistry with Cusack is non-existent (hardly surprising since they spend most of the film apart).
Crucially, another of the gaps is the comedy. Sure, there‘s some matey banter between Jonathan and Dean, but too often the film has to cover up the lack of sparkle or wit in Marc Klein’s script by trying to be outlandish: witness ‘comic’ French artist Sebastian’s gruesome paintings of his former tenant/muse Sara, the would-be wackiness of Lars’ outlandish musical vision, or Eve being physically abused on a golf driving range. The one bright spot is Eugene Levy, turning in a polished cameo as a possessive shop assistant prepared to assist Jonathan in his quest – at the right price.
More than anything else, to me Serendipity feels like a close relative of Sliding Doors, meaning that there’s a good idea in principle but in execution the movie doesn’t achieve what it sets out to (given the amount of work the leads have to do to make love happen, you could argue that the film is about anything but serendipity). It’s a great shame, because Peter Chelsom is responsible for Funny Bones, a quirky, individual film which is one of my all-time favourites. Serendipity is neither quirky nor individual: it’s an off-the-peg rom-com, and as far as I’m concerned it can go right back on the peg.