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(2001) (John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: Years after meeting for just a few brief hours and now a country apart, a young man and woman can't shake the feeling that the other is their soul mate and thus set out to find each other.
It's the winter of 1990 and Jonathan Trager (JOHN CUSACK) and Sara Thomas (KATE BECKINSALE) are doing their holiday shopping in New York City. They meet when both go for the same pair of gloves and find themselves immediately smitten with each other.

After spending the evening wandering around Manhattan, Jonathan would like to continue seeing her. Sara, on the other hand, wants to see if fate has them destined to be together and so runs a series of small tests that will prove whether or not the two are meant to be a couple. Unfortunately, the tests fail, leaving Jonathan not even knowing Sara's name or address and the two going their separate ways.

A few years later, Jonathan is a TV producer still in New York, engaged to marry Halley (BRIDGET MOYNAHAN) in just a few days. Sara, on the other hand, is now a counselor living in San Francisco with her new fiancÚ, Lars (JOHN CORBETT), a musician.

Despite the distance and the passing years, however, the two have not been able to shake the feeling that they may have missed out on the perfect person for them. Accordingly, Jonathan - with the aid of his best man, Dean (JEREMY PIVEN), and a reluctant Bloomingdale's salesman (EUGENE LEVY) - and Sara - with her best friend, Eve (MOLLY SHANNON) - set out to track down the other and see if their feelings are legitimate before it's too late to turn back.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
It's always fun - and often quite amazing - to play the "connect the dots" game of figuring out one's current place in life. Had any person in your life - past or present - or another person in their life, and so on, done or decided to do something differently, you might not be the person you are today.

It's the fodder for fate versus free will debates where the argument consists of whether everything that happens in any given person's life is simply a complex equation of dumb luck or is the result of some pre-determined plan of destiny and/or fate.

That's obviously what probably stemmed some of the first thoughts about time travel where a person's trip into the past and interaction with anyone there would likely cause a ripple-down effect where all sorts of things would be subsequently changed in the present and future.

The filmmakers behind "Serendipity," however, opted not to follow that preordained plot, but instead elected to explore the free will debate in romantic comedy form. Mildly reminiscent of "Sleepless in Seattle" as it involves various bi-coastal "near misses" - where the two would-be lovers just miss running into each other (one could call this something like "Mobile in Manhattan") - the film is a charming and fluffy little exercise in romance and comedy that thankfully at least partially breaks the mold of the stereotypical romantic comedy.

As written by screenwriter Marc Klein (marking his writing debut) and helmed by director Peter Chelsom ("Town & Country," "The Mighty"), the film revolves around two characters who may have met for only a few brief hours in the past, but were so smitten/starstruck/taken with each other that they haven't been able to shake the feeling that the other was their chosen Mr./Ms. Right, even after the passage of several years and no further contact.

The two, of course, have current significant others who stand in their way, thus adding to the romantic comedy mix. The results, while nothing outrageously hilarious, moving or sentimental, are near constantly entertaining to behold and certainly ooze with charm.

That's not to say, however, that the filmmakers executed everything perfectly. Certain comedy moments aren't quite as zany as one would like and/or expect - such as a scene where Jonathan tries to reach the hotel floor on which Sara waits, only to run into various obstacles - and other potential material - such as that involving their significant others - isn't always played up to full effect.

In addition, some of the "close calls" begin to stretch credibility and acceptance levels a bit, but since this is a romantic comedy, such material is given a considerable amount of slack. Besides, films like this are all about the aura of the story and this one has that in spades.

Much of that stems from the presence of, performance by and palatable chemistry between the film's leads. I've always thought that John Cusack ("America's Sweethearts," "High Fidelity") is one of the more talented and constantly dependable actors working today, and he doesn't disappoint here. While the script doesn't tax his abilities to any great degree, Cusack delivers yet another winning performance.

The same holds true for Kate Beckinsale ("Pearl Harbor," "The Golden Bowl") who nicely plays off him and delivers a delightfully whimsical take on her character. The chemistry between them feels right and we thus root for them to get back together again. A fault of the setup, though, is that the two partially come off as creeps since they end up endangering their current relationships with others.

It does help, however, that those two characters - played by Bridget Moynahan ("Coyote Ugly," "Whipped") and John Corbett ("Volcano," HBO's "Sex and the City") - aren't wonderful creations that we particularly care for, or that Lars' inattentive ways toward Sara make him less sympathetic.

That makes the potential "dumping" less mean-spirited and damaging for the protagonists, but the filmmakers seemed to have missed some tangible comedic potential involving their interaction with and/or jealousy of their boyfriend/girlfriend's attraction to another person.

Much of the comedy is left for the supporting performances. Playing the lovers' respective best friends, Molly Shannon ("Wet Hot American Summer," "Superstar") thankfully tones down her usual frenetic histrionics, while Jeremy Piven ("The Family Man," "Very Bad Things") is good despite not straying too far from the sort of characters he's played in various previous films.

The best comedic material comes courtesy of Eugene Levy ("Best in Show," the "American Pie" films) as a pushy Bloomingdale's salesman who finds retail opportunity in Jonathan's quest to track down Sara. Levy ends up adding some much needed zing to the proceedings, but that shouldn't be taken to indicate that the rest of the film is dull.

While it really isn't much more than fluff - albeit of the tasty variety - and does miss some opportunities, the picture's nevertheless quite enjoyable and entertaining to watch, thanks in great part to Cusack and Beckinsale. Whether viewed out of choice or preordainment, "Serendipity" probably won't disappoint many viewers and thus rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 12, 2001 / Posted October 5, 2001

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