A Simple Twist of Fate
Serendipity is rotten cotton candy. No, more like actual cotton dipped in rich, drippy chocolate--the confection hawked by Catch-22's greedhead Milo Minderbinder. About a quarter of the audience I saw Serendipity with (evidently a fair national sample) wolfed it down and clamored for more. Newcomer Marc Klein's script is so insidiously predictable, it won him a three-picture deal. Suits are scared; they reward reassurance, as long as they can respect its cynicism. Still, the flick is worth a look, because it's a station of the cross in the career of John Cusack, the Ninth-Greatest Actor of All Time (so says an Empire Magazine poll) and the unwitting recipient of a grassroots campaign to draft him for President (hey, stranger Presidents have happened).
Stop me if you've seen the trailer, but here's the gist: Jon (Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) tussle over a pair of gloves at Christmas. Each has a squeeze to shop for. They shouldn't but they spark, they skate, they float beneath improbably starry skies through enchanted Manhattan, skillfully fairytale-ified by director Peter Chelsom and cinematographer Jon de Borman, who enclose the two beauties in a space like a big snow globe with swirling plastic flakes.
Cusack's droll, knowing, McCartney bedroom eyes glint with Lennon venom, and he stammers romance with convincing conviction. He's still very much that heartbreak kid Lloyd in Say Anything, hoisting the boombox to serenade his girl. Back then, young Cusack lobbied director Cameron Crowe to file his moral sweet tooth down to fangs--he wanted Lloyd, a kickboxing fanatic, to assault and batter the girl's oppressive dad. "Yeah, I can see that," said Crowe sweetly, "but this is the movie where he doesn't throw the dad up against the fence." Crowe and Cusack likened themselves to Lennon and McCartney, temperaments clashing in harmony.
Cusack, a born director, an actor in training since 8, soaked up the lesson: Now he's sweetness and blight in one smart package. He can lend heft to featherweight lines, pull moments out of thin air, even defuse Hollywood bombs. Like the hunky sapper in The English Patient, Cusack is cool.
Beckinsale, a call-all-your-friends find in Cold Comfort Farm, remains too chipper and remote--she's still got the Oxford chill in her bones. Too bad--her feebly imagined Serendipity role needs all the humanity it can get. She and Cusack have potential chemistry, but not the heat required to bring the experiment to a rolling boil. It's cold fusion at best. She would've been ideal for High Fidelity, but she was sixty-five pounds bigger then, pregnant, so Cusack had to wait for her until now. Pity.
Jon jots his phone number on a $5 bill; Sara promptly spends it on mints, then jots her number in a copy of García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. She says she'll sell it, and then if fate places that fiver and that book in each other's hands someday, they'll know they were meant to be together. (Does Sara know that before fate reunites the couple in García Márquez's book, the guy cheats on the girl with 622 women?) Sara, dimwit mystic tease that she is, devises yet another trial: They'll simultaneously punch random buttons in separate elevators at the Waldorf, and if they emerge on the same floor, it'll be kismet. What is this, the Immunity Challenge on Survivor? Sara's not a maiden, she's a MacGuffin, a plot point, a marketing concept.
Flash forward a few years. Jon's about to marry some girl so devoid of personality she's practically transparent. It's Bridget Moynahan, who induces in the viewer total short-term memory loss of her existence. Sara has a more engaging fiancé, a musician (John Corbett) who comes off like Kenny G playing a hookah. Corbett gets one fun bit, agonizing over the motivations of the Vikings in his music video. But his courtship with Sara exists solely to receive a decent Viking funeral--she burns him to return to the New York site of her old flame. Horribly, pointlessly, she's accompanied by her best friend (Molly Shannon, who specializes in one emotion, awkward discomfort). At least Moynahan is forgettable; Shannon's performance is the stuff of nightmares. She ought not to be in pictures.
Jon has the film's only beautiful relationship, with his best friend, a New York Times obituary writer (Jeremy Piven, Cusack's best friend for life, and the hungriest actor you ever saw). Piven gets two fine scenes: his wedding-rehearsal toast, which hails himself as the true love of Jon's life (there's lots of weird homophobia in the film, but this bit at least is funny), and his attempt to tackle Jon on Sara's front lawn to prevent him from seeing an apparently naked Sara in flagrante delicto through a window. The good scenes start strong and go nowhere, but most scenes in this film start nowhere and wander off into nothingness.