Peter Chelsom uses the Big Apple as ''Serendipity'''s backdrop
John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, ...

On a mellow August night last year, outside St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan, fake snow fluttered as John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale bantered in front of a Christmas-tree-shaped triangle of tuba players. ‘Twas the season, at least on the set of ”Serendipity,” a comedy about fate, true love — and New York’s peculiar breed of romance. As the tubas tube, the faux flurries fall, and our fickle-fated lovers flirt urgently, the city is ready for its close-up. ”New York is very much a character in the movie,” Beckinsale says later. ”It’s a magical place where you run into people you were thinking about that morning but you haven’t seen in 10 years.”

Cut to…a brisk night on the last Thursday in September 2001, as ”Serendipity” costar Jeremy Piven glances around The Mercer Kitchen, a slick downtown eatery. The place is, shockingly, seating people immediately — for once, it’s underbooked. ”This is unusual, right?” he asks. Not in the days since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that crumbled the World Trade Center. The tragedy has prompted much debate within the film industry about content and timing, but little consensus about what’s appropriate. Case in point: Paramount Classics quickly moved its urban love story ”Sidewalks of New York” to late November. ”It’s a comedy that celebrates life in New York,” explains its director, Edward Burns. ”I think they just thought it’s not the right time for New Yorkers to be laughing.”

Miramax apparently disagreed, holding ”Serendipity” (which the studio had already bumped from an originally planned summer opening) to its scheduled Oct. 5 launch. The only change: A shot of the Twin Towers was snipped from the beginning of the movie in order to preserve the light tone. ”It’s a fairy tale anyway,” says director Peter Chelsom. ”This film is not didactic, it’s not political, it’s not violent. If my job right now is to simply offer relief, then I’m proud to do that.”

”Serendipity”’s escapist story centers on strangers Jonathan and Sara (Cusack and Beckinsale), who meet by chance, walk and talk — and ice- skate — through the night, then leave their next encounter to Destiny…who’s shamelessly lax: She idles for years. Now, with Sara engaged and Jonathan only days from walking down the aisle, the two embark on a frantic 11th-hour hunt for each other. ”It comes [across] as kind of sexy in a nice way, rather than having to pout a lot — the wet lower lip,” says Beckinsale, who hit the set still moist-mouthed from ”Pearl Harbor.” ”I think John would have pushed me on the ice had I done that.”

Despite some weather glitches and a West Nile virus scare (Gothamites will remember 2000 as the Summer of the Mosquito), the production itself glided along — past the Waldorf-Astoria, through Central Park, over to the Chelsea Piers driving range. ”It was a nice time,” Chelsom swears. ”If anyone was in a bad mood, they looked stupid.”

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