This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Justin Harlan’s turn to do the damage. Here are Elbee‘s thoughts on Serendipity.
When Justin suggested all John Cusack movies for this month’s recommendations, I have to admit I groaned a bit. I’m not knocking Justin’s taste in movies or his affinity for the man Cusack, but I just knew I’d end up watching and writing about some sappy romantic comedy since that portion of his career is the only one I haven’t ever cozied up to. Lite Action Star Cusack™? Cool. Psychological Thriller Cusack ™? Yes. Leading Man In A Rom-Com Cusack™? Oh Lordt, no. And it’s not got to do with John Cusack so much as it has to do with my general aversion to the genre (more on that coming up). But, in the spirit of this column, I hunkered down and chose a film I likely wouldn’t ever otherwise watch: 2001’s Serendipity.
Directed by British filmmaker Peter Chelsom (Hannah Montana: The Movie, The Space Between Us), Serendipity is a story of just that. Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) meet by chance in a busy New York City department store during the holiday rush. They have a strange bonding moment as they’re both trying to buy the very last pair of women’s cashmere gloves in the store, and decide to go out for a couple of frozen hot chocolates together afterwards. It’s a “meet cute” that unfortunately does not transcend the norm for romantic comedies, but at least it’s not as as blatantly contrived as, for example, spilling orange juice on someone on the street (yes, okay, I’ve seen Notting Hill). But, this chance meeting has a bigger function in this story, setting up the rom-com trope of “is it fate?” in perhaps a more elevated way. And this is why I chose this film: the scientific and philosophical argument of randomness vs determinism is pretty much my bread and butter (you can hear all about that in this episode of Got Me A Movie where Andrew and I speak about how this very subject applies in the sci-fi films Arrival and Knowing). Long story short, I had high hopes for this film, but as it went along, I found disappointment at (almost) every turn.
Let me tell you briefly why I don’t like rom-coms. Aside from their extremely conventional nature, I blame rom-coms for perpetuating a laundry list of negative stereotypes and behavior. Often, there’s a mean-spirited battle of the sexes that is supposed to be seen as playful, but rarely achieves that goal (an all-timer for a playful battle of the sexes done right: Much Ado About Nothing), there’s a best friend character on both the male and female sides who always undoubtedly gives terrible advice, and don’t forget the mother figure who might be nice if she wasn’t so overbearing. We think of “playing a part” abstractly sometimes, but it’s romantic comedies that show us just how formulaic and borderline robotic our roles in each other’s lives can be; quite literally, they are parts. And these parts seem to dictate how we interact with and react to one another, often to the detriment to our relationships. Rom-coms are absolutely a false representation of life, and they raise expectations and standards to levels that are altogether unachievable. It’s not healthy. Rom-coms are unhealthy. Do I need to reiterate?
But, like I said, I thought this one might be different. I thought it might have some substance beyond the surface level. And, while some of it does go against convention (Molly Shannon’s “quirky best friend” role is just as charming as it is underutilized), at almost every turn in the movie, I felt myself wincing at the unrealistic depiction of this star-crossed romance. As our two lovers endure missed opportunity after missed opportunity to actually be together (not just “together in love,” but literally in each other’s presence), I physically felt my stomach hurt as the predictability of this film was just too much (this is not a joke: rom-coms take me to an annoying emotional place where I’m both mad and queasy at the same time). Will Jonathan find the copy of Love In The Time Of Cholera that Sara wrote her name in? Will the five-dollar bill with Jonathan’s phone number written on it find its way back to Sara? Of course they will! But not before 75 minutes of relentless false leads and general dodging about.
One of the worst things about it, however, is that this movie tries so hard to be cool. You know that thing where a screenwriter will insert some dialogue about some iconic piece of popular culture that serves no purpose other than a lowkey “look at how hip I am” brag? (Come on, it is 2018, and we all know who Ernest Cline is.) As they’re ice skating at the beginning of the film, Sara asks Jonathan what his favorite movie is. He says, assuredly, “The correct answer is Cool Hand Luke.” Please don’t get me wrong, I think Cool Hand Luke is a badass film, but the cynic in me rolls her eyes because that line isn’t in there to give us insight into Jonathan’s character (if it was, we’d see evidence later on that he’s more than just this static dude who’s in love with this static lady, but we don’t), the line is there for the screenwriter (in this case, Marc Klein) to get his audience (represented here by Beckinsale’s Sara) to check out an old movie he likes. There’s a definite transparency to this kind of writing, and maybe due to an oversaturation of cultural references in recent years (again, 2018, Ernest Cline), I’ve become too jaded for these little bits of dialogue to make a good impression on me. The other chunk of “cool” that’s inserted into this film is John Corbett as Sara’s fiance Lars — he’s a new age musician appropriating traditional Indian music and putting a modern (well, 2001-modern) twist to it. I actually scratch my head here wondering if Lars’ character was written to be cool or tongue-in-cheek, regardless, as it were, he is incredibly uncool, right down to his weird bohemian demeanor (was that shit cool in 2001? I don’t even remember.).
But let’s go back to convention. Jeremy Piven is in this movie as Jonathan’s best friend Dean, and that means he’s obligated to give the Best Man toast at Jonathan’s wedding (that’s right, Jonathan’s getting married, but he can’t stop thinking about this other woman whom he spent a few hours with one night a decade ago — very romantic). The speech Dean delivers at Jonathan and Halley’s rehearsal dinner (Halley. Her name is Halley, and she’s played by Bridget Moynahan) is perfect — maybe too perfect — yes, too perfect — and maybe Dean is a cool and put-together dude, but I find these kinds of flawless representations of wedding traditions to be entirely unrealistic. Weddings are happy occasions, sure, but they’re also very awkward, and to portray all the events of one as perfect and smooth is irresponsible and only raises the expectations of women. Let’s not beat around the bush: society has a problem in which we raise little girls to dream about their wedding days as if they are princesses and can have whatever they want; we all know this, and we know it is damaging, yet most of us still subscribe to it in one way or another. And thus, we come to the scene in Serendipity that gets me goat the most: the night before their wedding, Halley explains to Jonathan that she thinks he’s been distant and feels their relationship is out of sync. To be fair, in this particular case, she’s right: Jonathan is wholly preoccupied with another woman at this point, but what struck me is that in order to have healthy relationships, we must look beyond our own expectations of what the relationship is or what we think it should be. We have to be willing to look beyond our own feelings. This scene entirely goes against any rationale of a healthy relationship. Halley is upset with Jonathan for having cold feet, but doesn’t bother to try to understand why he may have cold feet. She basically demands he snap back into it, without stopping to consider maybe he’s feeling very reasonably anxious about this huge life event happening the next day. Halley is the little girl becoming a princess on her wedding day, too preoccupied with having things be perfect in her own self-interest, showing no sensitivity to her partner. Sara aside, Jonathan shows a bit of nervousness, and to Halley, he’s the asshole in the situation. The one-sidedness is astounding, and it does nothing but mindlessly encourage women to behave in this way.
So, to put it succinctly, this movie did not do it for me. The characters are superficial, the situations are cringe-inducing, and aside from that, Kate Beckinsale did some of the worst acting of her career (please, if you want to see her in a cute, unconventional romantic comedy, just watch Cold Comfort Farm). Cusack’s okay I guess, but still pretty boring, and he’s obviously phoning in the role. Piven and Molly Shannon are definitely the standout performances, shining a bit of light into this otherwise mundane movie, but then again, there’s another convention: wacky best friends who liven up dull main characters (remember how Will & Grace quickly became “The Jack and Karen Show”?). But I suppose those dull main characters are presented that way so that it’s easier for us to imagine ourselves as them, which is both fascinating and entirely lame when you think about it. Again, it’s all about the parts we play. Standard existential philosophy. And you know, in that sense, perhaps through this short exercise in writing, I’ve found a way to take a bigger interest in rom-coms….nah, I still think I’ll pass.