THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


If I was making a list of the hardest movies I've ever had to review, Serendipity would be in the top five. There were lots of moments when I thought to myself, "I love this movie!" followed by moments where I wondered what the filmmakers were doing. This is an irresistibly old-fashioned cornball romance that has a lot of broad comedy awkwardly shoved into the middle of it. When the focus was on the romance, I was pulled into the story. The silly stuff tended to pull me back out. I walked away with a weird combination of admiration and frustration.

Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack throw their fates to the wind in Serendipity
John Cusack stars as Jonathan Trager and Kate Beckinsale plays Sara Mitchell. The two meet in a department store when they both reach for the last pair of black gloves on the rack. They banter back and forth, kind of attracted to each other even though they both have other partners. Jonathan suggests a cup of coffee, so they go to a tiny cafe in a nice neighborhood. Before they know it, several hours have gone by. The attraction is real. There is, however, a question: should they act on that attraction or not? Sara is a big believer in fate and the idea that everything happens for a reason. She writes her name and number in a book, vowing to sell it to a used book store the next day. If Jonathan finds it, he can contact her and their destiny will have been proven. He isn't too thrilled with the idea but has no say in the matter.

The story then jumps ahead several years. Jonathan is now engaged to Hally (Bridget Moynahan) while Sara is engaged to buffoonish New Age musician Lars (hilariously played by John Corbett). Despite the lapse in time, the two still think about each other. Jonathan has searched every used book store in New York, to no avail. He enlists the help of his best friend Dean (Jeremy Piven) to help him track Sara down. She, meanwhile, decides to make a spontaneous trip to NYC with her pal Eve (Molly Shannon). Although denying any ulterior motives, Sara is clearly hoping to find Jonathan. Most of the movie consists of scenes in which both people end up in the same place at different times, just barely missing one another.

Usually I complain about movies being so blatantly manipulative, but Serendipity is all about manipulation. It has fun with the idea that fate works overtime guiding us to our soul mates. There are some clever scenes showing the little coincidences that occur as Jonathan and Sara conduct their searches.

The movie's theme appeals to the hopeless romantic in me, but the lame comedy only appeals to my cynical side. There's way too much of it here. For example, there is a scene in which Jonathan is at a driving range. Just as he leaves, Sara and Eve show up. It's a nice moment that shows them nearly being brought together, only to miss their destiny by a second. But then Eve gets hit in the head with a golf ball and a club. Why is that moment even in here? The same can be said of a testy store clerk (played by Eugene Levy) who repeatedly gives Jonathan a hard time for no reason other than to ostensibly be "wacky." And I haven't even mentioned the scene in which Jonathan uses a pen to connect the freckles on Sara's arm, noting that they resemble the constellation Casseopea. Later, Sara sees the real stars in the sky and looks down at her arm longingly. These are, sadly, not the only examples of the bad humor.

This stuff is all stupid. And more than that, it's unnecessary because everything else works. I loved the way the movie explores issues of romantic destiny. There's something to be said for that idea, after all. How many people do you know who were brought together in unlikely and coincidental ways? Director Peter Chelsom gives the movie a light touch, just like in an old black-and-white romantic screwball comedy. His style makes the magical elements leap off the screen.

Despite some frustration with the aspects of broad comedy, I am recommending Serendipity on this basis: it's a great date movie (and yes, I did take a date to see it). I don't think one necessarily goes to see a movie like this for art or intellectual stimulation, nor is the movie made for those reasons. You go because it's sweet and romantic, and it makes a nice evening of entertainment with someone you like. I believe that is what the filmmakers had in mind. And if that is what you're looking for, this one is certainly a good choice.

( out of four)

Serendipity is rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, and for brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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