Chances are, `Serendipity' will seem overly contrived

October 05, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

What's the point of establishing an intense rapport between two romantic leads in the first 20 minutes - and then spending the next hour keeping them apart? In Serendipity, it's to prove that true lovers will always find their way. Too bad comedies can't proceed with the same certainty.

John Cusack exudes a sort of aging-puppyish charisma in the opening, set at Bloomingdale's during the Christmas rush. He squabbles with a pert, quick-witted stranger, Kate Beckinsale, about who was first to claim the store's last pair of black cashmere gloves. The two feel that old black magic, even though each already has a romantic attachment. Beckinsale says she will trust their attraction if fate backs them up.

She believes in serendipity. So rather than simply hand over her name and number, she puts them in a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera; if Cusack finds it in a used-book store, they'll know they were meant for each other. (He puts his vital statistics on a $5 bill.) Without getting bogged down in gimmicks, let's just say they get separated and years pass. When they're each about to tie marital knots, they go desperately seeking each other.

The result is supposed to warm the cockles of your heart; instead it merely paralyzes the cerebral cortex. Cusack and Beckinsale do pratfalls with two sets of second bananas: Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon as their best friends and Bridget Moynahan and John Corbett as their betrothed. Of course, the almost-wife and almost-husband can't compete with Cusack and Beckinsale; Corbett's character - a spacey jazz-pop-easy listenin' musical star - is particularly insensitive and annoying. And with equal idiot symmetry, Piven and Shannon start out as pragmatic as the leads are starry-eyed, although everyone switches philosophical positions as predictably as partners in a square dance.

Apart from Cusack and Beckinsale's immediate chemistry and the occasional laughs (some generated by Eugene Levy in his small role as a clerk at Bloomingdale's), the movie is an infernal plot machine; Marc Klein's script doesn't hand Cusack and Beckinsale the scenes that would make us cheer on their quest despite every artifical obstacle.

The most touching aspect of Serendipity isn't its candy-cane view of New York but its carefree assumptions. The characters hop on flights between New York and San Francisco without fear, and stop a plane before it leaves the runway - without upsetting airport security. Maybe the best way to see Serendipity is to take a cue from the characters and wait a few years.

Serendipity

Starring John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale

Directed by Peter Chelsom

Rated PG-13

Released by Miramax

Running time 85 minutes

Sun score **

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