By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated July 26, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

In real-life love stories, the interesting drama begins after the couple clicks. Real-life love stories, though, don’t make good romantic comedies: too meandering, too mundane, not enough meet-cutes — which is why, in romantic comedies, after the couple clicks, the credits roll. And why, for as long as there’s been lighthearted love (on screen and in Shakespeare, too), the chase has been the story, a game in which magic outruns adversity and crosses the finish line at happily ever after. We know Mr. X and Ms. Y (or Mr. X and Mr. Y, you know what I mean) are meant for each other. We know they’re going to connect. But first we know they’re going to be tested. How much we are willing to play along, then, and participate in the sexual tension, depends on how deft the moviemaker is at freshening up the oldest trick in the screenplay book.

By this standard the tissue- weight romantic comedy Serendipity is a real surprise — a fairy tale of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl that, by virtue of casting alchemy, a smart, funny script, and not a little creative serendipity all its own, works far better than such a standard bedtime story has a right to.

Consider the banality of this film’s meet-cute, set in 1990 during the Christmas shopping season in a twinkly, timelessly enticing New York City: Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale), each without their significant others on that auspicious day, tussle to buy the same pair of gloves at Bloomingdale’s. (The giant department store looks nothing like the sweet emporium in The Shop Around the Corner, but the scent of Lubitsch’s great charmer hangs in the air, along with the trendy, more modern odor of Nora Ephron’s remake You’ve Got Mail.) The strangers flirt, they play, they spend the day together; clearly, they fall in love. But whether they’re meant to be together for life is, Kate says, a matter of destiny — and if fate wills it, they’ll find each other in the future, guided by clues, coincidences, cosmic signposts. (Before they part, he writes her phone number in a book sold to a secondhand store; he writes his number on a five-dollar bill spent at a newsstand. Will the universe return these items to their original owners?)

Serendipity is about the search each undertakes some years later, right before it’s too late. Jonathan’s about to marry a pleasant woman (Bridget Moynahan) whose only flaw is that she isn’t Kate. Kate is engaged to a perfectly fine guy (John Corbett) whose biggest mistake is that he isn’t Jonathan. (His second biggest mistake is that he’s a New Age musician.) Can fate be goosed along? Jonathan searches for Kate, assisted by his best friend, Dean (Jeremy Piven), a newspaper obituary writer. Kate looks for Jonathan backed by her best friend, Eve (Molly Shannon). The overlaps, the symmetries, and the stockpile of coincidences amassed in the course of the quest bobble so precariously, it’s a wonder the whole comedy doesn’t collapse from an overload of date-with-destiny fetishism.

Here’s why it doesn’t: Director Peter Chelsom (the good director of Funny Bones who’s also the poor shnook attached to the fiasco Town and Country) establishes a happy feeling of romantic magic — specifically, New York City romantic magic, a proud and now poignant genre. Also, screenwriter Marc Klein writes funny, share-it-with-your- friends dialogue that bounces above the plot’s familiar groundwork. And most of all, the cast fits like. . .hands in gloves.

Really, notch the players up — to America’s Sweethearts status, say, where the usually winning Cusack was overmatched by the high-beam power of Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Billy Crystal — and this thing would have given way, buried by celebrityhood and a towering hair-and-wardrobe budget. (The Serendipity costumes by Marie-Sylvie Deveau and Mary Claire Hannon are admirable because they’re no big deal.) Notch the cast down to interesting-indie level, and everyone would smoke too much and say f— a lot. As it is, every pairing is a pleasure: Cusack’s spicy wry charm is refreshed by Beckinsale’s forthright intelligence. Beckinsale’s British delicacy is challenged by Shannon’s generous, madcap enthusiasm. As for Cusack and Piven, those old Chicago pals, I can’t say enough about the fun the boys communicate so palpably. They’re really the couple most likely to succeed, on a friends-for-life basis, and every scene between them — there’s a corker in which the pair interview a Frenchman from whom Kate briefly rented a room — is a delight, another gravity-defying volley.

Serendipity has no business working, but it does. And by the way, Eugene Levy has no business almost stealing the show, but he does, too. Levy plays a Bloomingdale’s salesman whose humorless commitment to his own worldview is, in grand Levy fashion, his funniest selling point — he’s yet another hardworking citizen with two left feet, who can’t understand why the rest of the world walks funny. Simultaneously assisting and tormenting Jonathan in the suitor’s heroic task of reconciling with fate and reuniting with Kate, Levy’s salesman is a clue, a key, a symbol, and a souvenir of Serendipity‘s good fortune.

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