Dir Peter Chelsom. US 2001. 89 mins.

Despite a schematic structure and overdose of contrivances, romantic comedy Serendipity represents a step in the right direction for director Peter Chelsom after his disastrous experience with New Line's Town & Country. Recalling Sleepless In Seattle, and other comedies and dramas about the mysterious operations of fate, Marc Klein's script is sporadically inventive and even smart in showing destiny's alluring hold on two youngsters, charmingly played by John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, whose paths collide briefly during one bustling shopping day over the Christmas holiday. Chelsom's good movies (Hear My Song, Funny Bones) were mostly confined to the arthouse/indie milieu, but with the muscle of Miramax's shrewd campaign, Serendipity stands a chance to become the director's breakthrough picture and a mid-range box-office hit for Miramax, if embraced by the twentysomething and thirtysomething dating crowd.

In the first - and strongest - reel, Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Beckinsale) accidentally meet at Bloomingdale's while fighting to get the last pair of black cashmere gloves on sale. Under pressure from the mad holiday rush - and the spell of the upcoming Christmas - the couple fall victim to a mutual attraction, despite the fact that each is involved with another person. Reflecting the fascination of couples who meet suddenly and dramatically, Jonathan and Sara spend the magical evening wandering around Manhattan, trying to get a grip on each other, while the viewers get to see the city's most romantic and iconic sites, including Central Park. (Serendipity may be the first released picture to be altered as a result of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which appears in a number of shots).

When the evening reaches its inevitable end, the duo are forced to determine what will be their next step. A smitten Jonathan suggests the obvious, to exchange phone numbers, but Sara, at once bewildered and scared, balks, instead proposing an idea that will allow fate itself to take control of their future. Her argument is based on the rationale that, if they're meant to be together, they'll find a way back into one another's lives. The props used by Sara, in lieu of the conventional phone number, are a $5 bill with Jonathan's number on its back that she immediately disposes, and a book with her number on it. Once the ball starts rolling, it's all about mechanics and near-miss encounters, such as taking separate elevators at the Waldorf Astoria and hoping to get off on the same floor.

A decade later finds Jonathan and Sara to be supposedly more mature, or at least less superstitious. He's about to marry Haley (Moynahan), whereas she's seriously involved with a New Age pop star, Lars (Sex And The City's Corbett). Despite their respective commitments, both keep seeing signs that take them back to that magical night in Winter 1990.

Intercutting between the couple's various activities on both coasts, the second and third reels arrange for each protagonist to have a best friend/foil; Dean (Piven) for Jonathan, Eve (Shannon) for Sara. Quite obsessed with their pursuit, both Jonathan and Sara ask their chums/conspirators the impossibly insane task of trying to locate their lover of a decade ago. It's probably not the fault of the secondary performers, but their scenes, with their punchy and cutesy one-liners, drag the feature down to the level of routine TV sitcom.

The standard of American romantic comedies, represented by Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail and others, has now become so low, that, occasionally, Serendipity comes across as smart and funny without being cloyingly sentimental. Nevertheless, since the outcome is utterly predictable, all that's left for the viewers to do is explore the different paths taken by each character, some of which exude charm and dynamic energy.

There's a jagged arc at work here, with the characters endlessly tugging with themselves and experiencing inner turmoil: Jonathan and Sara are fully aware that their behaviour may be crazy and irrational, but that it's still the right thing to listen to their instincts - and hearts. Young, romantic viewers may relate to characters that on one level are dogmatic and rational about their beliefs, yet on another level are passionate and unscientific in their ideas about fate. The film's appeal rests on the universal notion of people often asking themselves: 'What if I hadn't taken that taxi cab that day' What if I hadn't gone to shop that evening''

For a story like Serendipity to work, casting is critical, and, indeed, it is the central performers who make this confection enjoyable. No actor of his generation can embody an everyman who's at once ordinary and extraordinary as well as Cusack (Being John Malkovich). Playing a producer of a sports show who really wishes to be a documentarian, Cusack brings effortless credibility and in moments even gravity to his role. Almost redeeming herself after the embarrassing role she was assigned to play in Pearl Harbor, Beckinsale possesses the requisite and charm, and there's a nice chemistry between her and her leading man.

But the film's priceless moments belong to veteran comedian, Eugene Levy (Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show) as Bloomingdale's weird salesman. The scene in which the chic store's clerk manipulates Jonathan before disclosing any info about Sara's identity is American comedy at its very best.

Pro co: Miramax Films, Tapestry Films, Simon Fields Productions
US dist: Miramax
Int'l dist: Miramax International
Exec prods: Bob Osher, Julie Goldstein, Amy Slotnick
Prods: Simon Fields, Peter Abrams, Robert L. Levy
Scr: Marc Klein
Cinematography: John De Borman
Prod. Des: Caroline Hanania
Ed: Christopher Greenbury
Music: Alan Silvestri
Main cast: John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Piven, Molly Shannon, Bridget Moynahan, John Corbett, Eugene Levy