Starring: John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Piven, John Corbett, Molly Shannon

Peter Chelsom

Writing credits: Marc Klein
Distributor: Miramax * 86 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, and for brief language
  (US 2001)

I hate romantic comedies. I hate them because usually they are neither romantic nor particularly funny. I hate them because they perpetuate lies about relationships that people carry over into everyday life. I hate them because they offer facile, "love conquers all" answers to the messiness of real-life male/female interaction. I hate them because they are usually poorly written and star either Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, or worse, both (see also: NOTTING HILL).

I hate romantic comedies, unless, of course, they star John Cusack.

OK, I admit it. I, along with a few million other American women, have had a crush on John Cusack that began in 1989 with that now-classic boombox scene from SAY ANYTHING, and has lasted for over a decade now, even through the seeming crash-and-burn of his 2001 releases. One of the hardest-working young men in the business, Cusack has very nearly trademarked the devoted-puppy-with-an-edge persona that has made him a star. The extraordinary thing about Cusack's evolution into arguably the most popular leading man of his generation is that except for the self-penned, self-directed GROSSE POINT BLANK, he has not had any significant chemistry with any of his leading ladies since Ione Skye, the recipient of the boombox serenade. And yet, the gangly, shambling Cusack is the one American women want to take home to Mom after their hearts have been burnt by Russell Crowe and his chiseled hunk compatriots.

So what is it about this guy's screen persona that's so appealing to women? Part of it is that his characters are more like women than men. They wear their emotions on their sleeves, they're consumed with self-doubt, but still, they value love over almost everything else in their lives. They talk to their friends about relationships, something most men never do. Cusack is cute in a soulful, puppyish kind of way, and he's also bright, witty, and articulate, and just edgy enough to be interesting. But perhaps the key to Cusack's charm, and his success as a leading man, is that he doesn't play his characters' emotions to his female co-stars, he plays them to the women in the audience.

However, Cusack has been playing Lloyd Dobler now for more than a decade, and perhaps the character is just starting to wear thin. Or perhaps he merely phoned in his performance in SERENDIPITY, focusing instead on his upcoming project HOFFMAN, in which he portrays the young Adolf Hitler's art teacher. We know Cusack's range isn't limited to Doblerisms, we've seen him play neurotic puppeteers (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), sleazeballs (THE GRIFTERS), ruthless politicians (TRUE COLORS), and John Wayne-ish cowboys (THE JACK BULL). Perhaps he's just bored with Being Lloyd Dobler.

And who wouldn't be, in the mess that is SERENDIPITY? The ghost of Meg Ryan hovers around this picture, the self-conscious adorableness of which is so pervasive that I nearly needed an insulin shot about halfway through.

Here, Cusack is Jonathan Trager, who in true romantic comedy tradition, has a fabbo job, this time with ESPN. Attached to some unnamed offscreen babe, he is nevertheless ripe for the picking when he adorably duels with Sara (Kate Beckinsale) over a pair of gloves in an adorably Christmasy Bloomingdale's. Sparks fly, and they spend an adorable evening doing adorably romantic comedy things in romantic, adorable New York; such as swilling adorable frozen hot chocolate at the adorable patisserie named, yes, Serendipity. If Meg Ryan had put a Starbuck's equivalent in her adorable bookstore in YOU'VE GOT MAIL, it would be Serendipity.

Meanwhile, Our Hero, who's forgotten his girlfriend when presented with Beckinsale's Bambi-like eyes, wants to exchange phone numbers, but Sarah is one of those insufferable women who believe in soulmates and fate, and yes, Serendipity. This ought to clue Jon that she's nuts, or at the very least, profoundly ambivalent, but in true Cusack Hero fashion, he finds this irresistable. Sara spends the five dollar bill on which he writes his phone number, writes her number in a copy of LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, and says that if these items find their way back into their hands, they are fated to be together.

Assuming that the Cusack Oeuvre is essentially different experiences of the same character, the title of the chosen book ought to have been a warning, because Marquez' book is one of the volumes cited by Cusack's Rob Gordon in HIGH FIDELITY to show how sensitive a guy he is. If Jon were sane, he would decide he doesn't need this, but remember, this is Boombox Guy from SAY ANYTHING, and since Lloyd Dobler hasn't learned from his mistakes in twelve years, why should we expect him to start now?

The film then fast-forwards "a few years" with adorable clock hands substituting for the tearing calendar pages of movie cliche. Jon is now engaged to Hallie (Bridget Moynihan), who looks like a supermodel; while Sara is about to become engaged to musician Lars (John Corbett), a pretentious oboe player who possesses the soporific turgidness of Yanni while channeling the late Jim Morrison. Ah, but all is not rosy in Paradise, for both are still thinking of that adorable long-ago evening of hot chocolate and Wollman Rink.

Will Jon and Sara find each other?

Do you care?

What I hate about stories like this is that they treat initial infatuation as true love. They make it seem perfectly acceptable to treat your Significant Other shabbily merely because someone else you find attractive comes along, conveying the message that you wouldn't feel the way you do if it weren't Fate. On the way to bringing two obviously unsuited people together and making us think they are Made For Each Other, deus ex machinae substitute for plot trajectory, the better to speed the proceedings along before we realize that the two characters in question are merely screwed-up people with cold feet who can't commit to anyone.

I suppose SERENDIPITY deserves some credit for making the lead characters' Intendeds not the awful dullards such characters usually are (see also: Stephen Rea in THE END OF THE AFFAIR). Here, the gorgeous Hallie merely burns the dinner and obsesses about her wedding, committing the crime of living Real Life. Meanwhile, the buffoonish Lars, for all that he's Aidan from SEX IN THE CITY, is romantic, but utterly self-involved. However, because this is a Romantic Comedy, these flaws make these people subhuman, and therefore worthy of not just discarding, but also humiliating along the way.

Cusack is usually, in this reviewer's opinion, He Who Can Do No Wrong, but here he seems to be half asleep. Only in one utterly lovely moment when he sees the constellation Casseopaeia in the freckles on Sara's arm (THAT'S why women find him irresistable, guys), do we see the trademark Cusack charm. Beckinsale, however, is an utterly charmless actress in the doe-eyed Winona Ryder mold. Her dark features are developing an interesting sophistication, but she's still playing sexually immature ingenues. Cusack is capable of conveying real longing, but the with the virginal Beckinsale, all the eyelash-batting in the world does not generate heat.

Cusack is always a generous actor with his supporting players, and here it is the satellite roles that shine. John Corbett, whose terrific SEX IN THE CITY turn is finally generating some work for him after years of post-Northern Exposure Buick-shilling, has begun to make a career out of playing sensitive new-age guys, who coincidentally, can't select engagement rings worth a damn. Lars is supposed to be a jerk, but Corbett is so appealing, you're willing to forgive the Viking-themed video. Jeremy Piven, Cusack's real-life long-time buddy, is perhaps the only actor with whom Cusack DOES have any chemistry, and his trademark hyper-pal is showcased well here. Even the usually awful Molly Shannon is surprisingly low-key and natural as Sara's level-headed new-age friend. Poor Bridget Moynahan as Hallie has nothing to work with, but still manages to keep her from being the prototypical Bride from Hell.

Peter Chelsom's direction gives New York a twinkly, magical quality that's almost poignant in the weeks post-September 11, especially with all the shots of the New York skyline edited to delete the Twin Towers, lest anything mar the adorableness of the proceedings. But the clunky script piles contrivance upon cliché until nothing can save it.

Perhaps SERENDIPITY is what people want right now as we mourn the dead and fear for the future. If that's the case, I'm going to miss the Irony Years even more than I do already.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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