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What the World Needs Now 

Serendipity (PG-13)
Miramax Films

Love, sweet love. Predicted to be the cinematic antidote to the terrifying events of Sept. 11. With the withdrawal from release of special effects--driven disaster films, macho revenge dramas and anything remotely political, Hollywood must now decide what flavor of candy to feed an escape-hungry public at the movies.

In the case of Serendipity, the product is sweet but ultimately flavorless.

British director Peter Chelsom, who wowed critics with the 1991 small film Hear My Song, appears to have been lobotomized by increasing Hollywood budgets. His forgettable feature of last year, Town and Country, catered to the well-dressed, middle-aged set who consider clumsy infidelity to be entertainment. Now he has taken a turn at mainstream romantic comedy, and though all the elements are there, nothing original or unexpected surfaces to keep us interested in this technically adept but emotionally shallow story.

John Cusack stars as Jonathan Tragar, a New York television commercial producer who, one perfect December night, bumps into lovely Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) while both are Christmas shopping at Bloomingdale's. Though Jonathan and Sara are involved in relationships with others, they enjoy this one magical evening together sipping coffee at a fashionable shop called Serendipity 3 and ice skating in Central Park. It's clear to the audience that they are meant to be together, but Sara is a fan of romantic destiny. She tells Jonathan if their love is really meant to be, the universe will send them a sign. To test fate, Jonathan autographs a five-dollar bill and Sara inscribes a copy of the novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Both artifacts are placed into circulation, the theory being that if they should end up in the hands of the would-be lovers some time down the line, then fate is smiling on their union.

Naturally, it doesn't happen quite that simply. Seven years later, Jonathan, still in New York, is engaged to Halley, and Sara, now a psychiatrist in San Francisco, is engaged to pseudo-eastern New Age rocker Lars (a welcome appearance by John Corbett, best known as Chris on TV's Northern Exposure). As their mutual wedding dates draw nearer, Jonathan and Sara begin to dwell on what might have been and enter into an active search for one another. From here, the movie enters a hide-and-seek, cat-and-mouse chase formula which annoys more than anything else. Their planes criss-cross in the sky, their paths cross endless times but they fail to connect. All the while, we are longing for even a brief scene where Beckinsale and Cusack, whose chemistry is palpable, appear together.

Thrown in for comic relief are sidekicks for each of the principal players -- Jeremy Piven as Dean, Jonathan's best man, and Molly Shannon as Eve, Sara's best friend. Piven's character, though somewhat over-played, offers insights into Jonathan that are welcome. But Shannon's Eve is a brash, uninteresting throw-away character who doesn't in any way mesh with Beckinsale's gentle persona. This is a screenwriting and casting error that throws the importance of both of those aspects of filmmaking into high relief -- once a role is badly written or miscast, it's imprint on the end result, however small, is indelible.

Cinematographer John de Borman makes Manhattan sparkle and shine -- a quality of the film that may offer some comfort after all. Snowflakes fall like weightless diamonds. The city glitters with wealth and well-being.

But that characteristic becomes a glitch in the film as well. We never feel that these beautiful people deserve their beautiful lives. Jonathan's a perpetual doubter who longs to be a dreamer, Cusack's dream role. It feels false, then, when the director puts piles of money in his hands and he basically purchases his way back to Sara. We want him to use his wiles, intelligence and passion to find her. Instead, we get cash, plane tickets, credit card slips and bribery.

Ditto Beckinsale's character who is forced by the screenplay to drop product names as if they matter to her. We like her less for that, and wish the movie had more class than to put her in this uncomfortable position.

In the few moments that Beckinsale and Cusack appear together, the film shines. Unfortunately, it is not giving anything away to tell you that they eventually come together. The inevitable direction of the characters' actions is clear from the first 15 minutes of the film. We know where they are going and are just along for the ride. And when it's finally all over, we wish that Sara and Jonathan had hooked up about an hour earlier, giving us at least the pleasure of watching Cusack and Beckinsale effortlessly woo and glisten on the screen.

It will be interesting to see which of Hollywood's slated films will actually make it to theater in the wake of Sept. 11. I'm hoping to see Stephen Frears' Liam, a gritty tale of fascists in pre-WWII Liverpool; Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, the story of an eccenctric New York family starring Angelica Huston, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow; In the Bedroom, a tense domestic drama starring Sissy Spacek; and, of course, both Harry Potter: The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the first installation of the gorgeous looking Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Yes, we're all traumatized, but we're not brain dead. Give us alternatives to mindless, glorified violence; we're sick of those films anyway. But if the offering is romantic comedy, make it a hot-fudge sundae, not a poof of cotton candy.

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