No name. No address. Just fate.
John Cusack is probably the finest actor you’ll see in romantic comedies today. He has a believable, earnest charm, yet he’s also quirky, neurotic, and full of contradictions, qualities you don’t expect to see in a leading man. He starred in the perfect romantic comedy, Say Anything, and was fantastic in Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity. Then, abruptly, in 2001, he appeared in America’s Sweethearts and Serendipity, and two more utterly conventional romantic comedies you will never find. Quite disappointing. Not even John’s charm, his rapport with Jeremy Piven, or Kate Beckinsale’s cuteness can save the preposterous story of Serendipity.
Jonathan and Sara have a movie “meet cute,” running into each other in Bloomingdale’s while trying to buy the same pair of mittens. The two hit it off, but Sara’s insistence that the two’s meeting isn’t fate forces them to part ways without knowing any more about each other than their first names. Before they part, they both place clues out in the world that will lead them to each other — her phone number in a book, his on a $5 bill. Cut to several years later. Both are preparing for weddings, to other people of course. Their last-minute cold feet lead them to search for the other person. Will fate lead them together through incredibly improbable coincidences, or will reality prevail?
I saw Serendipity, I believe, during its opening weekend. Like its characters, I was hoping and wishing for something magical. All I got was a sappy movie that relied too heavily on coincidence. My wife liked it, sort of, but rare is the John Cusack movie that she’ll deny liking (like Con Air or Grosse Point Blank for some reason I can’t understand) because, I must admit, he’s much cuter than I am. I retaliate with my undying love and affection for Kate Winslet, who’s not only beautiful, but she has a British accent. But I digress.
Imagine, if you will, that you have the magical power to see two scenes ahead in a film. Curly’s going to bang his head into a pipe…and he does. Timmy’s going to fall down a well, and Lassie’s going to save him…and that’s what happens. Darth Vader is going to be some relative of Luke Skywalker’s…and so he is. Supernatural ability isn’t necessary to see into the future of Serendipity, because even the stale popcorn in your sofa cushions could tell you what’s going to happen in this movie. All romantic comedies have the inevitable happy ending — we know that’s coming, but the best build some sort of tension into the “will they or won’t they get together?” dilemma. Consider Sleepless In Seattle (not that I really want to, but it’s the best example I can think of). At least you had your doubts that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were going to find themselves on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Here? You’ll anticipate everything ahead of time. See some change handed out in the third act? Duh, of course the fateful $5 bill is going to be in there! Jon’s fiancée is giving him a book…will it be “Hair Care for Dummies” or the significant copy of “Love in the Time of Cholera”? Need I tell you? And quite frankly, I think Jonathan’s a complete idiot for giving up the sexy fiancée (played by Bridget Moynahan, one of the siren barmaids of Coyote Ugly) who not only looks good in jeans and a tank top, but also pays enough attention to him that she remembers the book that he (no doubt surreptitiously) looks at when they go into a used book store. But I digress.
Not only is the action predictable, but the coincidences on display don’t just laugh in the face of believability, they spit in the face of believability and then kick it in the groin repeatedly. In his commentary, director Peter Chelsom (of Town And Country infamy) notes that they actually refrained from some more blatant coincidences, like Jonathan getting into the same cab that Sara just exited. Sure, you lose out on that comedy gem, but you’re treated to the aforementioned $5 and book flukes, plus the two of them petting the same Dalmatian out for a walk, or Sara putting her hand on the gum Jon left on the back of a park bench, or Jon finding the leather jacket she left in the park. I’d think that if a leather jacket were left anywhere on a bench in the New York City general area, it would be claimed by a homeless person within minutes. But I digress.
Miramax, yet another part of the Disney monolith, has produced a pleasing disc for the John Cusack fans who will inevitably buy it, but opt instead to watch one of his better films (like my wife does every time she thinks about watching it). Video is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Edge enhancement is the transfer’s only fault; it appears frequently, though it is not as distracting as on some other titles. Flesh tones are natural, and the black level is deep and rich. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. You’ll get some occasional atmospherics from the surrounds, but seeing this is a comedy the movie is mostly front-loaded. Then again, did you expect this movie to cause the neighbors to complain? (To which I reply, yes, but only if you invited them over to watch it with you.)
At this point, in the temporal scheme of things, I took time out from the rest of my review writing to take in the extras on the disc. I started at the beginning, with the deleted scenes (there’s five of them, by the way). I had already watched the commentary at this point, as I noted above, but I’ll take more about that in a minute. Amongst these scenes are alternate versions of the opening scenes in the film, which the director notes on the commentary that they went back and reshot. Just why is now beyond me. Had the alternate scenes been included, my entire outlook on the film would have been changed. Well, not entirely, because there’s still altogether too many coincidences later on. The problem with the opening, as shown theatrically, is that there’s no tangible passion between Jonathan and Sara. In other words, we get no sense why this chance encounter would lead them to such measures to find each other later. Here, there’s undeniable attraction between the two — they even kiss! — and the rest of the film makes so much more sense.
But then, the disc meanders back to Dullsville. The commentary track by director Peter Chelsom would be dry even if he didn’t have a parched earth British accent. It’s frightfully boring, and made even worse by his complete confidence in the wrong decisions that went into the film. A 20-minute feature, “On The Set,” was originally broadcast on the Starz and Encore pay cable networks. It’s the sort of self-congratulatory promotional material you’d expect. It contains material from the deleted scenes, as well as the scenes that replaced them, plus plenty of other clips and interviews with the actors and filmmakers. A still gallery provides a barrage of promotional stills and on-set photos. The theatrical trailer also has clips from the alternate opening, again tantalizing with what might have been. In an interesting feature, Chelsom’s on-set diary is included. I’m not sure how it has been edited, but it gives an interesting glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of the filming of a major picture. In this case, filming of scenes in Central Park had to be delayed because the city was fumigating the park against the West Nile Virus.
In all my talk about Serendipity‘s weaker points, I neglected to tell you what’s good about it. When they are together, John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale have excellent chemistry. The two stars would be great together in a different film where they could be smart and funny and in love, without all the fate hokum. There’s also the chemistry between Cusack and his longtime friend Jeremy Piven. Their scenes are the best moments in the film, filled with easy familiarity that comes from a life-long friendship and that can’t be duplicated by a few weeks of rehearsal and shooting. John Corbett, probably known best for Northern Exposure, will crack you up as the incredibly cheesy New Age musician Sara is engaged to. He’s all the worst qualities of Yanni and Kenny G, all rolled into one. And of course, there’s Eugene Levy. I dearly love watching Levy; he’s so droll and taciturn that it just cracks me up. However, like most of his recent projects (especially American Pie 2 and Greg the Bunny), he’s definitely better than the material.
John Cusack fans may want to add Serendipity to their collection, but while there are worse romantic comedies out there (like his other 2001 dud, America’s Sweethearts), Cusack has done so much better. If I haven’t completely scared you away, try it as a rental.