Happy Tuesday! I’ve been blogging this month about the fated mates trope in romance–when two people are destined to be together. Last week I shared some examples of books that use this trope and why readers love (or loathe!) fated mates. This week I’m looking at this trope at work in the 2001 John Cusack/Kate Beckinsale film Serendipity. As you’ll read, I have some issues with the movie (I kind of hate-watch it), but it’s a good example of a film that examines this trope head on, in both dialogue and plot.
When Sarah (Beckinsale) and Jonathan (Cusack) first meet, they’re both after the same pair of gloves. It’s a meet-cute for the holidays in New York City, and naturally they follow this up by getting some sugary hot drinks. The two are obviously attracted to one another, even though they both admit to being in other relationships. When she starts to leave, Jonathan cranks up his flirting desperately, but Sarah won’t even give him her first name. “If we’re meant to meet again, then we’ll meet again,” she says. “It’s just not the right time now.” Sarah believes in Fate, you see, and even when she meets a guy she likes–a CUSACK, for God’s sake–she’s not having him unless there’s some kind of divine sign. Preferably multiple signs.
“I don’t really believe in accidents. I think Fate’s behind everything,” Sarah explains to Jonathan. Though she qualifies this a bit, suggesting it’s not just destiny, but its dance with human choice which guides her. “I think we make our own decisions. I just think Fate sends us little signs, and it’s how we read the signs that determines whether we’re happy or not.” (Jonathan replies in this conversation, without even a touch of irony, “Lucky discoveries. Columbus and America.”)
Let me admit my bias here: I almost always prefer Kate Beckinsale clad in leather and killing werewolves and vampires. That said, I find the beginning of Serendipity one of the more frustrating scenes in any romance. Sarah seems to like Jonathan, and he really likes her, but in response to him trying to exchange numbers with her, she leaves their connection to chance. They run into each other again that evening, and go ice-skating, but then when a breeze blows Jonathan’s number out of her hands, she assumes they are not Meant to Be. But just to be sure, she tests it: he writes his number on a $5 bill and she buys Certs with it at a food cart to send it out into the world. (Sidebar: are Certs still a thing?) She also puts her own name and number in a book, Love in the Time of Cholera, and says she’ll donate it to a used bookstore the next day. If either of these items find their way to them in the future, she surmises, it’ll be a Sign to forge ahead.
“What if it’s all in our hands, and we just walk away?” Jonathan asks, and reasonably so, because man. Sarah doesn’t just like signs, she’s practically a slave to them. It’s like she’s eight and twisting an apple stem while reciting the alphabet and just hoping it snaps off at “J.”
In a final, last-ditch attempt to assuage Jonathan’s completely understandable protests that “You don’t just have the most incredible night with a person and then leave it all to chance, do you?”, she makes them both jump in elevators opposite one another, thinking if the universe is on their team they’ll both arrive on the same floor. She then tells him her first name as a parting gift to torture him for years to come: “Hey, it’s Sarah. My name’s Sarah.” Surprise surprise, they both hit the 23rd floor, but the universe is cruel or at least New Yorkers are because into Jonathan’s elevator jumps a man and his son, who’s clad in a devil costume (Why is this kid in a devil costume at Christmas? No idea.) and pushes all the elevator buttons. And the two miss each other. Because one of them is crazy.
Fast forward a “few years” in the future, and both Sarah and Jonathan are engaged to other people. But they haven’t been able to get their one night, and each other, out of their minds. In some ways, they’ve switched places. Jonathan is now always on the lookout for the book with Sarah’s number and signs that he’s marrying the wrong woman. Sarah is a counselor who tells her clients to give up on the idea of destiny or soul mates. Yet slowly, signs start appearing that push them both to start frantically searching for the other, despite lack of last names or phone numbers. (Because Sarah. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.) Near misses and coincidences multiple, the two fly across the country back and forth, and the signs culminate in the appearance of that $5 bill and that used copy of Love in the Time of Cholera. Though the quest is not without its frustrations: “Maybe the absences of signs is a sign,” Jonathan says at one point, discouraged and sitting on a park bench.
It all turns out happily, of course, but along the way Jonathan, Sarah, and their friends all explore and question the idea of magic in romance, of two people being soul mates or something mystical at work in our lives. Jonathan’s best man is at first the voice of reason, but then gets caught up in the reckless passion of his friend. Sarah’s friend, the owner of a New Age store, is oddly skeptical of fate herself. “Life is chaotic…otherwise why would you get out of bed?” she says of the idea of destiny.
The film’s plot seems to draw the conclusion that, like Sarah said in the beginning, the universe “sends us little signs, and it’s how we read the signs that determines whether we’re happy or not.” I like how this movie brings a bit of magic to romance, though I could’ve done without Sarah’s trying to suss out destiny’s intent with parlor tricks.
For those of you who’ve seen this, what did you think of Serendipity? Were Jonathan and Sarah truly fated mates?