A big hit back in 2001, Serendipity goes for the jugular when it comes to tackling the mojo behind most rom-coms; it’s explicitly about the action of fate in bringing a couple together. Sure, we usually get a grip in the first ten minutes as to who deserves to be with who, particularly when the leads are as strong and likable as Kate Beckinsdale and John Cusack. Peter Chelsom’s film isn’t so sure-footed when it comes to putting obstacles in their path, but it’s a lively work-out to figure out what Marc Klein’s script is taking us.
It’s Xmas in NYC, and Jonathan (Cusack) runs into Sara (Beckinsale) while shopping in a department store; they’re both after the same pair of gloves. This meeting cute makes it clear to us that the couple are fated to be together, but they both have other relationships, and break apart without the key information required to find each other. Jonathan is getting married, but rather than prepare for his wedding, sends himself on a wild goose chase to find out what happened to the girl who got away…
This is a Hollywood rom-com, so improbabilities are everywhere. Sara writes her details in a copy of Love In A Time of Cholera, and Jonathan has to search every second-hand bookstore on the West Coast in an effort to track her down. The notion is that he’ll only get his reward once his quest forces him to endure many indignities, and eventually the course of true love runs smoothly for Sara and Jonathan. But they put most of the obstacles in place themselves, for no reason other than to provide a list of contrivances for them to overcome, so the film’s mechanics are laid bare.
Serendipity’s problem is that it’s all subtext and no text; resolving the missed connection is a matter of Jonathan getting various ducks in a row, but the arch plot points work against the theme of fate’s interaction with troubled souls. Cusack and Beckinsale are watchable performers, and even if Serendipity’s story is lightweight to a fault, it’s a model of low-investment, low-yield film-making, all dressed up but with nowhere to go but an obvious, rather pat denouement.