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.
Serendipity, like Cusack’s whole career, illustrates the New Auteur Theory in action: Forget the old heroes, the people with the camera–they can’t save us. Who could have more heart and soul than Chelsom (Funny Bones) and de Borman (Saving Grace, The Full Monty)? All Chelsom can do here is smuggle in the odd slice of life: a random Hasidic golfer glimpsed at a driving range, a bracing swoosh of the camera here and there. If you want to work, you’ve got to cast your style before swine.
No, our sole hope is the enlightened despotism of actors. Look what Cusack’s ornery independence has achieved. He broke out of the Brat Pack by renouncing and artistically trouncing the soulless corporate youth movie, etched his Grifters role in righteous acid, co-wrote the against-the-grain High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank, and made the screen world safe for Spike Jonze and Nick Hornby. When he does a big, dumb film, it’s to collect clout for art, and he subverts Mammon at every opportunity. If he must do an action hero in Con Air, he does it in Birkenstocks. He forced a wholesale rewrite of America’s Sweethearts when he took the lead from Billy Crystal, trying to put some English on the gags, some backspin. Cusack may even reverse Woody Allen’s creative death spiral in the film they’re cooking up. The key is that Cusack is savvy, pragmatic, yet skew to the plane of all that makes movies so bad.
Most signs of life in Serendipity were planted furtively by actors desperate to escape the story’s shackles. Eugene Levy does much with little as a martinet sales clerk who briefly torments Cusack. (But see how much more he can do in Best in Show or the lost worlds of SCTV or Splash, where he was unconfined by formulas.) Most of the film’s best moments are the largely improvised scenes of Cusack and Piven cracking wise. Those spontaneous looks of shock you see on the wedding party’s faces in Piven’s toast scene are reactions to startlingly off-the-script things he made up on the spot. It would be grimly charmless to hear Jon and Sara quiz each other about their favorite sex positions on their first skating-rink date without Beckinsale’s expert pratfall on the ice and the nice-guy naturalness of Cusack’s quip, “Yeah, that’s my favorite position too.” His performance has qualities the studio system can’t grasp: It’s humane, understated, seemingly uncorrupt.
When I’m on movie sets with big male stars, I’m always struck by how small they are–I feel like I could carry Nicolas Cage or Sly Stallone off under my arm, like Dino grabbing Sammy Davis and saying, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this award!” Yet how they strut and puff themselves up! One $20 million star actually has a colleague slap his face to ready him for the camera, shouting, “You’re [name of $20 million star]!” causing the star to bellow, “I’m [name of $20 million star]!” until he really feels big. It’s Pathetic Method acting.
John Cusack, by contrast, really is big, over six feet tall. He flying-tackled me in the snow once on a film set, just for fun and out of boredom (and maybe to express his opinion of the press). It hurt: The guy is all muscle. But instead of acting big, he does the opposite. He crouches, makes himself look smaller, a rather cryptic human question mark in place of the human exclamation point that most stars aspire to become. (The scene in Being John Malkovich where he’s on the 7 1/2 floor of a building with extremely low ceilings uses this Cusack tendency to excellent comic effect.) He always ducks the obvious, loud, self-aggrandizing statement in favor of the quiet, inquisitive, other-focused, elusively self-concealing statement. Not that he’s any less of an egomaniac than most other stars–just more interesting.
Every love story on film is contrived, and we’re all inclined to give the most rickety fairy tale the benefit of the doubt. All it takes is the illusion of spontaneity. Serendipity should have heeded the stern Correct Usage warning under “serendipity” in my Encarta dictionary: “The idea of discovery is necessary to the word.” As John Barth put it, “You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings.” But nothing is left to chance in Serendipity. The film should have been as open to discovery as its star is. As it is, the whole excessively premeditated thing has less emotional resonance than that single quick scene in Being John Malkovich where Cusack’s puppeteer character manipulates a pair of marionettes miming a tortured embrace. You know they’re made of wood, you can clearly see the strings–everything you see on a screen is a manipulation–yet you can feel an unmistakable human pain and passion.
John Cusack probably won’t get elected President of the United States. But maybe he should be President of Hollywood.