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Review: Drippy 'Serendipity'

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- John Cusack, in case you've somehow managed to block it from your memory, is cute -- cuter than any of us could ever hope to be. According to Cusack's increasingly annoying screen persona, he's the most sensitive, romantic male in captivity, the kind of guy who pines for the one he loves the way most of us inhale oxygen. He's not a man. He's a wounded puppy trapped in a man's body.

"Serendipity" is the third consecutive Cusack picture -- after "High Fidelity" and "America's Sweethearts" -- to position Captain Cuddles as the mushiest of the mushy -- and it's finally time for him to hang up the rote shtick. Though "Serendipity" is about the frantic pursuit of a possible soul mate, it's close to soulless.

Director Peter Chelsom and screenwriter Marc Klein are more concerned with maintaining an iffy story-telling device than they are with developing believable characters and situations. Cusack plays Jon Trager, a really cute New Yorker who's planning to get married. One day, while Jon is Christmas shopping at Bloomingdale's, something ooby-dooby magical happens. He meets a really cute British woman named Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) when they're both reaching for the same pair of cashmere gloves. Then they debate another shopper (Buck Henry) over who should get to buy them. That's a really cute scene, if you stop to think about it.

John Cusack stars in 'Serendipity'

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Even though we discover that Sara also has a betrothed (John Corbett) waiting for her at home, the two cuties decide to bond at a fancy, upper East Side ice cream shop called Serendipity (a real place that serves the largest, most expensive sundaes you've ever seen). Sara likes this particular shop because "serendipity" is her favorite word. She believes that things happen for a reason, and it quickly becomes apparent that the reason she believes it is that there wouldn't be any movie to speak of if she didn't. Jon and Sara then go ice skating in dreamy Central Park, where fake snow floats down around them and Jon says all the right things about Sara's drop-dead wonderfulness.

Sara, however, isn't quite ready to dump her boyfriend and take up with Jon. She needs further proof that she and Jon are meant to be together, so she does what any of us would do in the same situation. She gets Jon to write his name and phone number on a five dollar bill, then she spends it at a nearby newsstand. If the five ever comes back to her, she'll know that she's met the love of her life.

The odds of that happening are pretty stiff, of course, so she appeases Jon by writing her name and number inside a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera." She tells Jon that she'll trade it in at a used book store, and, if he stumbles across that particular book somewhere down the line, he'll know that they need to follow through with their cute attraction. It's never made clear why Jon doesn't run for his life, or how Sara managed to wiggle out of her straight jacket before going to Bloomingdale's.

By their very nature, genre pictures include scenes that you've watched 100 times before. The trick is to do something that gives them a unique edge, or pushes them into uncharted territory. Alas, "Serendipity" is so stringently a "romantic comedy," you could review it with a pie chart. Supporting characters are defined via a single trait, with New Age pretentiousness taking a particular beating. Corbett plays a popular, Yanni-style instrumentalist, and Sara's best friend (Molly Shannon) is a cynic who runs a spiritual healing shop. There's also a grumpy supporting turn by Eugene Levy, who's far more talented than you would imagine, given the one-note roles he's forever forced to play.

Jon debates the concept of destiny with his government-issue sarcastic best friend (Jeremy Piven) while obliviously passing this close to an equally oblivious Sara. The best thing you can say about "Serendipity" -- aside from the fact that it's so reminiscent of other, better movies, many people will faint over it -- is that it presents New York City in all its sparkling, promise-filled glory. If that's the kind of uplift you're looking for these days, you could do a lot worse than buying a ticket. Then again, you could go out and rent Woody Allen's "Manhattan," and do much, much better.

"Serendipity" may be bad for your teeth, but that's about it. No bad language. No hot sex. No reason to watch it. Corbett, by the way, has either stopped washing his hair or is rejuvenating it with Quaker State 40-weight.


• Serendipity

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