by Michelle Erica Green

Some people dream that they have a single perfect soulmate out there, fated to find and stay with them forever. Other people consider this an appalling nightmare, for it's hard to believe in free will and predestined soulmates at the same time. For the former, Peter Chelsom's Serendipity offers a spirited and hopeful tale of a love that was meant to be, while for the latter, it confirms that obsessive belief in romance can lead to all manner of idiocy. But in either case it's an entertaining if predictable magic carpet ride.

Jonathan meets Sara while they're both shopping for gloves for their respective significant others. After a fantasy afternoon in Manhattan, she informs him that if they're meant to be together, they'll find each other again. Unfortunately the paper on which she has written her phone number blows away with a stack of garbage, which she takes as a bad sign. Sara agrees to give fate a second chance by writing her number inside a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, which she then sells to a used bookstore; Jonathan, meanwhile, writes his phone number on the back of a five dollar bill. They try a shortcut -- getting into different hotel elevators to see if, by chance, they pick the same floor to get out -- but the Devil, in the form of a costumed small boy, presses all the buttons on Jonathan's panel. Thus he misses his date with destiny as Sara gets tired of waiting and disappears.

Several years later, Jonathan has plans to marry elegant socialite Halley and Sara has become engaged to quirky musician Lars, but neither one has forgotten their brief encounter. Random signs -- a movie poster, a song on the radio -- remind each of them of the other. Maybe, as Jonathan tells his would-be best man Dean, Halley is a Oscar-winning sequel like The Godfather Part Two, but he can't really appreciate it without seeing The Godfather again. So, with Dean's help, Jonathan sets off in search of the ideal woman he lost. Meanwhile Sara, who has become a practical therapist, decides she needs a break from her self-absorbed fiancÚ and takes a weekend trip with her best friend to see whether fate has any messages left for her. Despite her newfound pragmatism, Sara is troubled by the symbolism when her engagement ring doesn't fit on her finger, and she's not sure where she fits into Lars' well-orchestrated world.

Anyone who's seen As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing will be able to predict the twists that follow, for outlandish coincidences conspire to bring the would-be lovers closer together, even as their respective intendeds begin to realize that something may be wrong with the wedding plans. Hoping she truly knows her beloved, Halley gives Jonathan a first edition of Love in the Time of Cholera as a gift, for she has noticed that he always looks at copies in used bookstores; hoping he can make his future wife happy, Lars flies to New York but keeps interrupting their romantic afternoon with cell phone calls.

Sara's friend Eve is offended by the very idea of soulmates, for if life is predestined, we can't ever learn from our mistakes -- "Life isn't some stage's messy!" Yet Eve also suspects that Lars may not make her friend happy, and living happily ever after remains the fantasy even without magical manipulation to make it happen. As an obituary writer for The New York Times, Dean can't help but notice all the people who leave this world with their dreams unfulfilled; moreover, his own storybook marriage is coming apart at the seams. "The Greeks didn't write obituaries," he tells Jonathan. "They only asked one question...did he have passion?"

And for all his narcissism, Jonathan does have that. When he first meets Sara, Jonathan reads her freckles as if they were constellations, which reminds him of Greek legends of doom upon which the names of the stars are based. It may be silly, but it's better than turning out like the salesman who helps him track down Sara's old address from a credit card receipt -- a guy who keeps order in his universe by fiercely defending the line that separates the front and back of the store counter. Jonathan's life is most meaningful at its seemingly messiest, even though it's apparent that fate has been meddling all along.

It helps that lead actors John Cusack and Kate Beckinsdale have wonderful chemistry with each other and next to none with their respective lovers, Bridget Moynahan as shallow Halley and John Corbett as Yanni-wannabe Lars. Given the warmth and humor between Jonathan and Sara, it's easy to root for them to come together whether or not one wants to believe in soulmates. The scenario is pretty ridiculous, yet people in love (or caught in the throes of lust and obsession) tend to create meaningful narratives out of random events. A song on the radio or an overheard word can send us back years into the past, and in some cases can make us believe that we're being reminded of a long-ago attachment for a specific reason.

Serendipity doesn't address the deeper underlying questions of what we seek when we look for love -- is it a need for affirmation of our images of ourselves, the mystery and excitement of unknown strangers, the pleasure of shared interests, the comfort of being part of a pair? Or is it something as devious as nostalgia, which makes us long for what we no longer have rather than appreciating what we've got in the here and now? Jonathan almost calls off his search for Sara when he discovers that the roommate service she once used has become a bridal shop next door to the restaurant where they had dinner together; he thinks it's a sign that he's supposed to worry about the wedding, not his dream of Serendipity (not coincidentally the name of the restaurant). Yet there are dozens of other unremarked signs in the film that could point him in either direction. The movie suggests a seamless cloth that weaves the lovers' lives together, yet it's fun to pull against the bias, to look for spots where the fantasy frays.

Of course the movie ends before we find out what Jonathan and Sara really might be like together -- not to mention little things like whether she changes the thermostat all the time, whether he leaves his socks on the bathroom floor, whether either is willing to make the thousand small compromises that makes a relationship last beyond the first flush of love. We leave them not at the destination, but the true start of the journey, when they must go from hunting the magic of love to finding signs of it in every mundane aspect of their lives.

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