For those who were yearning for another keep-’em-apart-till-the-last-minute romantic comedy on the order of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, the once-daring indie-cinema vanguard Miramax brings Serendipity, the goofiest movie Nora Ephron never wrote. This is another one, folks — one of those gentle fables in which everyone on the planet knows the leading man and leading lady were meant to be together, except of course for themselves and the people unfortunate enough to be engaged to them. The end justifies the means: It doesn’t matter who else gets hurt as long as the name-above-the-title stars are happy as the end credits roll.

The couple in question are John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, two smart and capable actors (let’s overlook America’s Sweethearts and Pearl Harbor) trapped inside a Rube Goldberg contraption of a screenplay (by Marc Klein). Seven years ago in New York (a magical New York in which the Twin Towers have been digitally removed so as not to distract 2001’s audiences, though the first section unfolds in 1994), Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Beckinsale) meet cute over a pair of gloves at a trendy store. They go ice skating and are mutually smitten, yet Sara decides that if they were really meant for each other, they will have to meet again by chance. If everyone thought like Sara, the world population would plummet.

The years pass, and Jonathan and Sara have moved on to new lives and new loves — Jonathan is about to get married to Halley (Bridget Moynihan), and Sara lives in San Francisco with her pompous lute-playing fiancé Lars (John Corbett). Lars is made a self-absorbed jerk, and Halley is made a near-total zero, all the better for us to accept that Jonathan and Sara could do better and could have done better if Sara hadn’t been such a fate-obsessed ditz all those years ago.

Movies like this frustrate me, and not only because so much of the structure depends on the lovers just missing each other, misunderstanding what they see or hear, or generally acting stupid for 90 minutes until, bowing to the demands of this genre, they finally fall into each other’s arms. No, the frustration comes from these movies’ almost callous disregard for the people that the main lovers toss aside in their quest for one another. What if Lars were a good man as well as a talented musician, and what if Halley had even a single scrap of personality? What if our lovers were fated to be with them? Then Jonathan and Sara could meet again, decide that love isn’t always as neat as love in the movies, and behave like adults.

We should be thankful, I suppose, that Serendipity offers us some diversion in the way of a colorful supporting cast: Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon as Jonathan’s and Sara’s respective best friends; the scene-stealing Eugene Levy as a rigid salesman. But except for some moments between real-life friends Cusack and Piven (who aren’t allowed a tenth of the funky rapport they had in Grosse Pointe Blank) and some bits between Cusack and Levy that feel improvised, the talented cast is weighed down by the plot’s idiot mechanics. At one point, poor Molly Shannon is beaned by a golf ball and whacked with a golf club, for no purpose other than a cheap laugh; we next expect to see her in the hospital, but no, she’s chatting over coffee with Sara without so much as a bandage on her head.

The stupidity piles up at the climax, which shovels on the coincidences (a five-dollar bill with his name and number on it! a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera with her name and number in it!) and, again, forgets all about poor Hally jilted at the altar — there’s not so much as a single line of dialogue in which Jonathan has to deal with the pain he must’ve caused. At the end, the lovers meet at that same skating rink, with the same fake-looking snow falling on them, and when I was supposed to be happy about the reunion, I found myself instead looking at Jonathan and thinking, You selfish bastard — what’s going to happen if you meet another sexy British woman by chance in the city; are you going to ditch Sara, too?

Explore posts in the same categories: one of the year's worst, romance

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