Sugary sweet premise connects long, lost lovers in 'Serendipity'

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

How apropos that ''Serendipity'' takes its title from an Upper East Side restaurant famous for its decadent desserts.

This story of destined lovers is as sweet and frothy as the frozen hot chocolate the place is known for -- and just as likely to give you a tummy ache afterward.

It takes place in a Manhattan that is so idyllic, so romantic, it probably never existed -- and it certainly doesn't now. Shots of the World Trade Center towers in a version that screened at the Toronto Film Festival have been excised since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for maximum moviegoing happiness.

What's left is practically a promotional video for New York tourism, wrapped up as a chick flick. Snowflakes gently fall, birds take flight and lampposts come alight at the most opportune moments.

Reveling in all this splendor are Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale). They meet cute over the last pair of black gloves in the Bloomingdale's shopping rush a few days before Christmas.

It's 1990, and Jonathan and Sara are both seeing other people, but experience such a cosmic connection that they feel compelled to spend a few magical hours together, ice skating in Central Park and gazing adoringly at each other over frozen hot chocolate at -- you guessed it -- Serendipity.

Sara tells Jonathan she likes this restaurant because she likes the meaning of the word -- fortunate accident -- then proceeds to bang us over the head with all kinds of mumbo-jumbo about fate and destiny and how each of us has a special someone out there, waiting.

They acknowledge they're attracted to each other, but can't do anything about it. So they agree to a little game: She writes her name and number in a book (''Love in the Time of Cholera''); he does the same on a $5 bill; and they put these items into circulation. If the money comes back to Sara, or the book comes back to Jonathan, they'll know they're meant to be together.

Flash forward several years later. Jonathan's still in New York, works as an ESPN producer, and is about to marry the beautiful Hallie (Bridget Moynahan). Sara has moved to San Francisco, works as a counselor and is about to marry a self-absorbed New Age musician named Lars (John Corbett from ''Sex and the City'').

Jonathan and Sara start thinking about each other and seek each other out, with Jonathan's best friend Dean (Jeremy Piven) helping him and Sara's best friend Eve (Molly Shannon) helping her.

If you've seen the ads for this movie (or seen the movies it rips off, including ''An Affair to Remember,'' ''When Harry Met Sally ...'' and ''Sleepless in Seattle''), you know there will be a series of excruciating near-misses before our two lovebirds are reunited.

Director Peter Chelsom redeems himself somewhat from the debacle ''Town and Country,'' which also took place in a romanticized New York. ''Serendipity'' is lively and plucky and, thankfully, short.

There are a few funny moments, most of which come from Eugene Levy as a scheming Bloomingdale's sales clerk, and he livens every scene he's in simply by showing up. Lars' self-important stage performance and music video also are good for a couple of laughs.

But many of the laughs from first-time screenwriter Marc Klein feel painfully forced.

Cusack and Piven have as easy chemistry -- no surprise, having grown up together in Chicago and performed opposite each other for years. But Piven's role is so large, he's threatens to overtake the leads. And as an obituary writer for The New York Times, some of his jokes about dead people are especially uncomfortable now.

Individually, Cusack and Beckinsale are charming. He's back in that lovestruck, overeager-puppy-dog mode of ''Say Anything'' and ''High Fidelity.'' She's lovely, flirty and elusive. But they have so little in common, it's hard to figure out what binds them together.

Maybe it's the sugar rush from the frozen hot chocolate.

''Serendipity,'' a Miramax Films release, is rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, and for brief language. Running time: 98 minutes.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.



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