“A fortunate accident” is how Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) defines the concept of “serendipity” to Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) early on in Peter Chelsom’s romantic comedy of the same name. Accident or not, “Serendipity” the film can certainly be described as a “fortunate” arrival in multiplexes during this less-than-stellar year. The film is hardly a groundbreaker, but it most certainly a big-hearted charmer–and when it comes to the rom-com genre, that’s all that matters.
Much of the charm comes from leads Cusack and Beckinsale, who establish a palpable romantic rapport in the film’s extended prologue. It’s rush holiday shopping season in 1990 New York City, and Jonathan and Sara meet when fighting for the last pair of black cashmere gloves in a crowded department store. A search for gloves appears to have become a discovery of love, for the strongly attracted pair then spend one long night on the town getting to know each other and falling hard. But the timing is off for the attached Sara, and she proposes to Jonathan an unusual plan where they part, leaving their reunion entirely up to the powers of fate. Years later, Sara and Jonathan are in committed relationships with other people, but both still keep watch for possible signs–and consider the idea of taking destiny into their own hands.
Notions of fate and destiny aren’t an alien concept in romantic comedies; in recent years the concept has become somewhat of a staple, playing a role in films from 1993’s smash “Sleepless in Seattle” to the recently released Happy Accidents. Writer Marc Klein doesn’t make many, if any, deviations from tried-and-true formula. Not only do the pieces of the plot fall into their expected places at all the regularly scheduled intervals, the characterizations also have a ring of familiarity. Both Sara and Jonathan have best friends/sounding boards who have quirky senses of humor; the current love interest for the female is eccentric to say the least, and the one for the male has her share of neuroses.
While innovation is always a welcome addition to any film, it’s not entirely necessary in a film like “Serendipity.” What matters most is the manner in which it goes about its familiar business, and those behind “Serendipity” have made an immensely likable entertainment. Not only do they strike convincing sparks together, the affable Cusack and the luminous Beckinsale are able to engage the audience individually, a critical component considering they spend most of the film carrying separate halves of the film. However, they are strongly helped by the well-cast supporting players. The lively comic instincts of Molly Shannon and Jeremy Piven elevate what could have easily been stock best friend roles; in Piven’s case, his lifelong off-screen friendship with Cusack makes for an added level of convincing on-camera cameraderie. As the potential spoilers to a Jonathan-Sara pairing, John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan are also appealing, albeit in different ways. Moynahan’s Hallie isn’t so much ill-suited for Jonathan than simply not as an ideal a match as Sara; Corbett’s eccentric, egocentric new age musician Lars is harder to like, but his charisma makes Sara’s attraction to him understandable.
Such sharp casting and performances is a testament to the wonderful directing job by Chelsom. From the first frames he sets up the right atmosphere of fairy tale romance; contributing mightily to that is John de Borman’s cinematography, which captures all the visual splendor of winter in the Big Apple (a sight that is even more powerful and magical in light of recent events). More importantly, however, Chelsom found the right rhythm for this story, and the film comes in at an efficient sub-90-minute run time. There isn’t a wasted moment, and as such “Serendipity” leaves one with a pleasant feeling few films generate: that of wanting more.