Serendipity
A Film by Peter Chelsom, written by Marc Klein


Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl. If it sounds a little formulaic - well, it is. The disappointment of this new film from director Peter Chelsom, written by first-time screen-writer Marc Klein, is that it employs a first-rate cast and crew to such little effect. Even if one had never seen a "romantic comedy" and had no idea what to expect, the formula is played out here with such safe, plodding attention to the rules that all sense of spontaneity is pounded out of it.

Chelsom has an interesting track record. His first film was the quirky, highly-regarded British import Hear My Song, the story of an eccentric concert-performer. His second was the daft and bittersweet comedy Funny Bones, a quiet but surprisingly absorbing meditation on how we use comedy in our lives that featured appearances by a number of English Music Hall comedians. His third was the somewhat sentimental American coming of age film The Mighty about a pair of mismatched adolescent boys and the lessons they learn together. His fourth and most recent was the star-studded Town & Country, which was reviewed quite negatively by most critics, yet was highly praised by a few.

Like most directors who come to America, usually lured by the opportunity of making big-budget movies with world-famous movie stars, Chelsom has lost a lot of the unconventional edge that informed his first two films. While The Mighty had an interesting premise, and explored some areas of adolescent friendship in an original way, it also represented a slip into a kind of manipulative sentimentality.

That manipulation, and that broadly sentimental streak take center stage in Serendipity. The film is an unabashed representative of its genre, and pulls out all the stops in pursuit of its conclusion - which is, of course, wedded bliss between the protagonists. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that it pushes all the right buttons in the right order - or perhaps, precisely because of that fact - the effect is more mechanical than magical.

Klein's script is competent but uninspired. Many of the lines are clever, but seem too finely crafted - too well-written - to be natural. The development of the characters is imperceptible. They are virtually the same people at the end of the film that they were at the beginning. The only thing that has changed is their circumstances, and those by dint of some far-fetched coincidences that I think are intended to be "magical realist," but come off as simply contrived.

The keystone of the plot is Sara Thomas's (Kate Beckinsale) belief in "destiny," which turns a chance encounter with complete stranger Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) into a potentially life-long joining of "soul-mates." After meeting over the glove counter at Bloomingdale's, the obviously captivated couple adjourn to a nearby restaurant. After sharing a stirringly romantic encounter, they part anonymously, on Sara's insistence that if they are meant to meet again, they will do so.

Sara's belief in "fate," and her willingness to risk sacrificing her budding relationship to that belief, could have been the basis of a much better film. The writer and director might have explored the uncertainties of life, the seeming coincidences and false paths it offers, as well as the contrast between the obsessive romantic and the obsessive realist.

Here, however, the narrative line is so inexorably predictable that it offers no real interest, only an unfolding of the prescribed plot elements that is reminiscent of ritual drama. These include the "hero's journey" that both Jonathan and Sara undertake to find each other (seconded by the requisite supportive but skeptical, comic side-kicks), the many close-calls, the climactic near-disappointment, and the eventual reunion and marriage.

If you think these facts are spoilers, you have missed the point of this review. If you have an ounce of foresight, you will be able to predict each of these events - and see it coming as from a great distance - within the first ten minutes. The only suspense the plot affords is in wondering whether it will allow itself to stray at all from the pedestrian confines of its genre. Unfortunately, the answer is, no.

The restaurant in which the two lovers share their first moments together is named... "Serendipity!" This kind of ham-fisted attempt at cleverness recurs throughout the script, and is one of its most annoying features. But perhaps most irritating of all, is how good so much of the film is, and how much the romantic elements in our nature want it to be much better than it is.

The strongest aspect of the film is the performances by Beckinsale and Cusack - but again, there is also disappointment. Cusack plays another of the puppy-dog-cute, emotionally-limited, slightly befuddled but fundamentally good-hearted man/boys to whom he has been giving life since Say Anything, in the 1980s.

He is very good at it, and if one had not seen him do it so many times before, it would certainly be more engaging. The fact that the part as written gives him no room for developing or exploring that character in new ways is one part of the disappointment. The fact that he didn't take the character and make him something more interesting and edgier than what he was given is another.

Yet there is a lot of charm in Cusack's performance - as there nearly always is. There is humor - a wonderful, wry sense of comic timing and an ability to deadpan and underplay comic situations that manages to breathe life into some creakingly obvious plot points. There is his ability to relate with other actors, that gives some of the moments he shares with Beckinsale a believable romantic fire, notwithstanding their lack of direct sexuality.

And Beckinsale returns the favor. Her scenes with Cusack are the most lively and engaging in the movie. Like Chelsom and Cusack, this film strips her of the unconventional edge (an effectively unexpected counterpoint to her girl-next-door prettiness) that has given arresting depth to some of her characters in earlier films - most notably Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, and her breakthrough film - the English import Shooting Fish. Here, she is reduced to a two-dimensional icon of desirability - albeit of a kind that is laced with a slight hint of (domesticated and completely safe) quirkiness.

But even so, Beckinsale labors mightily to develop a relationship between her character and Cusack's that we want to see happily resolved, no matter how cloyingly superficial and predictable such a resolution may be. In spite of all the objections made above, the two leads create a dynamic that is sympathetic and attractive.Sure, the outcome is a foregone conclusion and the story stays resolutely on the surface, but somehow we just want to see those two cute kids happy - I mean, it's like they were made for each other, right?

The supporting performances are weak. The chief supporting players - particularly Jeremy Piven as Cusack's sidekick Dean and Molly Shannon as Beckinsale's faithful companion Eve. Their parts are both under- and over-written. Too much of their characters is telegraphed through awkward, unnecessary exposition. At the same time, they are clearly no more than foils for the characters they accompany. Klein has no real interest in them, and as a result neither do we.

Moreover, they bear the brunt of the movie's ill-conceived mugging. There are several points at which the writer tries to provide a little texture to the story, but his efforts are mostly awkward and artificial. Faced with such situations, Piven and Shannon end up trying to clown their way through - but the obvious self-consciousness of their efforts breaks the continuity of the film and is embarrassing rather than amusing. Director Chelsom should have helped them here - seen where they were going and turned them aside - but apparently he didn't, since these moments made it into the final cut.

The one bright spot among the supporting cast is the few short scenes with Eugene Levy, playing a Bloomingdale's-salesperson-from-hell. Although this pusillanimous neurotic is no great stretch for Levy - it is a slight exaggeration of a character he has played many times before - he does the shtick he is called upon to do with such energy and expertise that it provides a couple of brief lifts the movie badly needs.

A professional crew makes the film look very good. Camera angles and lenses emphasize the intimacy of the contact between Jonathan and Sara. Soft focus, warm colors and graceful forms abound. Every romantic effect from focus-pulling blurs and diffraction filters that make the lights sparkle with color to shooting through downy (movie) snowflakes gets pulled out - and all well done, too. But they can't make up for the limitations of the script.

The music is a strong and pleasant addition to the movie. With a sampling of a wide variety of styles and tones, from artists that range from Annie Lenox, Nick Drake and Bap Kennedy to Louis Armstrong, there is a lot to like - it is possible that the soundtrack album - as a series of stand-alone performances - will be more successful, overall, than the film.

In spite of real disappointments and many shortcomings, Serendipity is a good-hearted, likeable film. There is no malice in it, and work (too much work, perhaps) clearly went into trying to fashion it into a lighthearted, fanciful "romp." It is certainly not an unpleasant way to spend an hour and a half or so, but it's too bad that such fine actors and such a talented and interesting director couldn't have given us more for our time and money.

That's my take on it. What's yours?