Moronic in Manhattan

John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in <i>Serendipity</i>: People talking about relationships, no kung fu — uh-oh, chick flick!

John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in Serendipity: People talking about relationships, no kung fu — uh-oh, chick flick!

Rated 2.0

It’s infatuation at first sight in Serendipity, a slight, terminally cute romantic comedy that transforms the chance meeting and separation of two possible lovers into a test of stamina for them as well as the audience. The film alternately surges and wanes as two starry-eyed strangers spend most of the movie on opposite coasts of the United States before suddenly trying to relocate each other just before each marries someone else. The coincidental circumstances, fortunate discoveries and unexpected turns of events trumpeted by the film’s title mushroom from amusing to ridiculous and repay one’s indulgence with only meager returns.

The film begins with a sort of short Before Sunrise episode in snowy Manhattan. In Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy lock eyes while on a train and later decide over coffee to get acquainted during a 24-hour period in Vienna. Their companionship evolves into an imaginative, candid talk-fest of substantial substance and amusement. In Serendipity, John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale lock eyes while reaching for the last pair of black cashmere gloves in Bloomingdale’s and later decide over libations topped with whipped cream to get acquainted during one night in New York City. Their impromptu date devolves into a forced, familiar dance with destiny.

Serendipity’s message is that fate is giving us little signs and that our lives depend on how we read and respond to them. It muses on the existence of soul mates and the possibility that we could live our lives very happily with any number of people. The script by Marc Klein sugarcoats the core premise as Jonathan (High Fidelity’s Cusack) and Sara (Pearl Harbor’s Beckinsale) chat about and toy with fate. They wonder at length if they belong with each other, use their best friends as sounding boards and basically lie to and ignore the feelings of the significant others they are about to jilt.

Director Peter Chelsom, who made the enchanting Hear My Song as well as the disastrous Town and Country, begins the film “a few years ago.” The hook is that Jonathan, under Sara’s direction, writes his name and phone number on a five-dollar bill. She then cashes it at a sidewalk newspaper stand. She promises to write her name and number in and recirculate the book she is reading (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, in which a man waits 50 years before confessing his love to a woman). If they are meant to be together, she wants fate to intervene and drop either the bill or the book back into their laps.

Chelsom jumps the film “a few years later” into a sort of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail quandary. Jonathan has become an ESPN producer. His fiancée is a society girl (Coyote Ugly’s Bridget Moynahan). His best friend (Jeremy Piven) is an obituary writer for the New York Times. Things such as the name of a hairdresser and song lyrics begin to remind him of Sara. Sara now lives in San Francisco and has become a therapist. Her fiancé is the New Age musician Lars (Northern Exposure’s John Corbett). Her best friend (a moderately irritating Molly Shannon) is the owner of a New Age boutique and café. Memories of Jonathan begin to consume her thoughts.

The story then begins to severely strain. It’s apparent why Sara would maybe leave Lars. He’s a self-absorbed fool who neglects her. It is unclear why Jonathan has second thoughts about his fiancée. He tries to explain it by comparing The Godfather film to Godfather II. The analogy is not funny.

Cusack, who starred in the terrific teen romantic comedy Say Anything, and the rest of the cast are wasted here. American Pie 2 scene stealer Eugene Levy is at his deadpan best as an uptight store salesman but the stretch of credibility demanded at times (one groaner is that Sara’s best friend turns out to be a college friend of Jonathan’s fiancée) snaps painfully back on the proceedings.

Writer-director Buck Henry surfaces in a cameo in Jonathan and Sara’s attempt to make up a story about why they should be given back the gloves they had replaced on the rack. The scene is messy and not as funny as one would expect. The rest of the movie closely follows suit.