The Hunger Games return with such a sequel twist that you can't believe writer Suzanne Collins didn't think of film when writing. Catching Fire builds up with all types of subversive messaging which is interesting but also brings into relief the limitations of the genre and film.
During the hustle and bustle of last minute Christmas shoppers at Bloomingdale's department store, a young woman and man simultaneously reach for the same pair of black gloves.
After realising it was the last set, both instantly refuse and insist on the other taking them. In their deliberations, a disgruntled elderly man swoops in to grab them. In a bid to prevent him buying the gloves, the pair hastily attempt to fabricate a suitable story to reclaim the item - eventually stumbling to the conclusion that is was to be a gift for what is presently her boyfriend, but within 18 months, after surgery, will become his girlfriend. The old man, clearly unimpressed, returns the gloves and promptly leaves. The young man, clearly enjoying the situation, hands over the gloves for her to purchase.
After leaving the store, they head over to Serendipity 3, a place she admits to loving because of the meaning of the name. She then declares that she believes everything in life is governed by fate, citing Fleming’s discovery of penicillin as a prime example. In response, he reveals himself to be Jonathan Trager, and begins to sound her out to see whether she has a boyfriend. After learning they both have partners, they seem satisfied to continue their coffee together with no real expectations.
Upon leaving, Jonathan hints at being interested in her and attempts to get her number, should the occasion arise that they were both single. Although she seems similarly interested, she enters a cab to depart with no contact details. A clearly dejected Jonathan beings to head home before realising he misplaced his scarf, leading him back to Serendipity 3, where again runs into the young woman - who likewise had left her newly bought gloves. Both surprised, but definitely pleased, they head to an ice rink, where they begin to get to know each other.
At the end of the night, despite her reluctance, she finally agrees to give him her number. Just as he takes the piece of paper, a large truck drives past, blowing the phone number away. Believing it to be fate, she refuses to re-write it and begins to leave. A distressed Jonathan attempts to get her to change her mind, but to no avail. To compromise, she gets Jonathan to write his name and number on a $5 bill. She immediately runs across the street and buys a packet of mints with the money. He runs after her, taken aback, while she explains that when the $5 bill comes back into her possession, then she’ll know fate wants them to be together. To balance the odds, he insists she do the same. She agrees to put her contact details in a copy of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, then sell it to a second hand bookshop. Still unconvinced, Jonathan pleads not to leave everything to fate. She quickly drags him into the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, instructing him to pick an elevator floor -
if they both picked the same one, then she knew destiny wanted them to be together. Just before their respective elevator door closes, she throws him the pair of gloves and finally reveals her name to be Sara. She picks floor 23, as does Jonathan initially, only for a kid to also enter the same lift - who quickly presses all the buttons, delaying his arrival on floor 23. Meanwhile, having already arrived, Sara waits in hope before leaving dejected and upset. Moments after she goes back down, Jonathan finally arrives on an empty floor 23. Realising he’s missed his chance, he also leaves disappointed.
A Few Years Later…
Dean Kansky delivers a pre-wedding speech, declaring his delight to be chosen as Jonathan’s best man and how he has found his soul mate. However, as the camera pans round the table, his bride-to-be is not Sara, but Halley Buchanan. On the way home from the rehearsal, Jonathan stops off at a street stall selling used books, spotting a copy of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, but finding it to contain none of Sara’s contact information. Meanwhile, at a counselling centre, Sara is shown giving advice to broken hearted clients - encouraging them to reject the idea of fate as a guiding force and to instead focus on the real world.
Leaving the clinic, she returns home to a rose-covered front room with a
large wrapped present addressed to her. After unwrapping each layer to find progressively smaller boxes, she eventually finds a small but empty ring case. Confused, she turns round to find her fiancé, Lars Hammond, holding an engagement ring. Despite a brief struggle to fit the ring on her finger, Lars admits to being relieved that she accepted, being worried she wouldn’t appreciate having to squeeze in their wedding and honeymoon before his band go on tour. She briefly smiles, but with a twinge of disappointment.
Meanwhile, Jonathan’s memories begin to re-emerge once more, with the name Sara continually recurring throughout his day - from an English woman at a golf range, his new hairdresser, to a man singing along to the song ‘Sara’ on his walkman. Startled by the apparent signs, he immediately heads over to the New York Times’ office, where Dean works. By now Jonathan is adamant that he has to find Sara, despite Dean’s best efforts to convince him otherwise - pointing out that he’s risking his marriage. They head out into New York to once more try track down the book, visiting numerous shops before realising that in actuality, his determination was likely down to cold feet.
Later, back at home with Halley, Jonathan finds the old bag containing the black gloves Sara had given him years previously. In his curiosity, he reaches inside the gloves to find the receipt - at which point he notices her store account number is still printed there. At Lars’ gig, Sara meets up with her sister,
Caroline Mitchell and her boyfriend, Kip, who are keen to congratulate her on the news. However, upon meeting up, Caroline is quick to point out the engagement ring didn’t have a round-cut diamond, as Sara had always wanted. She hastily dismisses it, claiming she also had plans to marry Boris Becker, before Lars joins up with the group. As he does so, his band manager briefly turns up to mention that the tickets for the shows in Stockholm have sold out and that they’d be adding further dates - forcing them to skip their honeymoon. Sara is clearly disappointed, but reluctantly agrees and consents to Caroline house-sitting while they’re away. Unaware that she’s upset, Lars leaves her to see to band related merchandise.
The following day, Sara meets up with best friend Eve, who tries to convince her that the signs pointing towards Jonathan were merely coincidences. Meanwhile, Jonathan heads over to Bloomingdales to attempt to salvage any information possible from the receipt. However, his efforts are briefly halted by a snippy sales clerk, who initially refuses to help him out. Eventually, after helping to boost his commission by buying over $700 worth of clothes, the clerk finally reveals that the account has been dead for several years - enraging Jonathan. The clerk quickly suggests heading over to the central office, where they keep all credit card details on file. At Lars’ place, Sara admits to be disillusioned with how things are going and reveals she needs a break for a few days.
She heads straight over to Eve, presenting her with a plane ticket to New York as a birthday gift.
By now, Jonathan and the clerk, now accompanied by Dean, head over to the Bloomingdale’s record warehouse to look for any credit card info on Sara. After searching, Jonathan finally comes across her customer information, only to realise her last name has been smudged beyond recognition. However, they do manage to recover her address - albeit from 7 years ago. At this point, the flight has landed in New York, and Eve has just realised Sara’s true motives for coming to the city. Angry, she almost leaves, only to be persuaded to stay by Sara before heading over to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
Jonathan and Dean manage to track down Sara’s old apartment and despite convincing the secretary to release the information, the only person listed at that time was a man by the name of Sebastian Mignon. After successfully finding Sebastian, they learn that Sara and her boyfriend briefly lived in the same apartment with him after being assigned by an accommodation agency. Although scant on details, he manages to recall it being in close proximity to Serendipity 3. As luck would have it, Sara and Eve are already at the restaurant, seemingly having all but given up on finding Jonathan. Eve encourages her to appreciate her relationship with Lars and forget about her previous fleeting romance all those years ago. On their way out, Eve leaves a tip and in doing so, picks up the $5 bill with Jonathan’s details on it - unbeknownst to her. Just as they both get into the taxi to head back to the hotel, Jonathan and Dean show up at the restaurant - but both parties fail to notice each other. Dean finds out the agency has since moved, but manages to get the address of their new offices. Just as he begins to hail a cab, Jonathan suddenly develops a belief that all the events are conspiring against him for a purpose - resigning himself to never finding her.
Meanwhile, in the Waldorf-Astoria, having been close college friends previously, Halley and Eve happen to cross paths. After a brief catching up, Eve joins the group for the wedding rehearsal, while Sara heads back up to the hotel room.
Upon getting to her room she f inds Lars waiting for her - who apologises for his behaviour. After the rehearsal, Halley confronts Jonathan, questioning his apparent absence from her life over the previous few days. After reassuring her of his commitment to her, they reconcile. As a pre-wedding gift, she gives him a copy of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, which he opens to find ‘Sara Thomas’ printed on the inside, along with her phone number. Baffled, he heads out to a cab where Dean is waiting to begin his stag night. Dean, similarly shocked, calls up a newspaper colleague to find her address.
While on a horse drawn carriage journey through the city, Lars stops the journey in order to make further tour arrangements with his agent. While this is taking place, Sara wanders over to the bridge to see the ice rink she and Jonathan had visited on their only night together. By now, Jonathan and Dean are already on a plane heading over to New York. Dean goes on to praise his search for Sara despite the odds, then reveals that his own wife, Courtney, has moved out. After landing, they quickly head over to Sara’s home. Dean runs on ahead, only to see Caroline and Kip (who are house-sitting for Lars) embracing through the window. Assuming the woman is Sara, Dean desperately tries to prevent Jonathan from getting close to the house. Despite his efforts, Jonathan still manages to catch an obstructed glance at the Caroline, who he too believes to be Sara.
The following morning, Sara begins to travel out of New York, having just broken up with Lars. Before the flight, she realises she accidentally has Eve’s purse, but proceeds to buy a set of headphones anyway. When doing so, she realises she handed over the $5 bill with Jonathan’s details on it - quickly grabbing it before making a speedy exit from the plane. After a few phone calls, she manages to get his home address - only to find out about his impending wedding at the Waldorf-Astoria. Realising she may have little time, she quickly grabs a cab and rushes to the hotel. Upon arrival at the hotel, she enters the main room to find a janitor cleaning up. A visibly devastated Sara begins to leave, until the janitor reveals the wedding never went ahead.
Jonathan then walks to the ice rink, now empty. Laying down in the middle of the circle, he begins to contemplate the events leading up to this point. While on the ice, a black glove comes flying out of nowhere, landing on top of him. Turning around, he sees Sara. After a brief handshake and introduction (amid tears), the two kiss. The scene cuts to the pair back in Bloomingdale's, a year after finally finding each other. They head up to the counter, to find the same clerk who had helped Jonathan previously. In a light-hearted moment, they attempt to buy a pair of black gloves while the clerk desperately tries to usher them out of the store for closing time.
John Cusack was on board relatively early on in the production process, signing on after being impressed by the overall story, saying ’It had a fairy tale quality about it that I loved’. Upon reading the first draft of the script he was presented, he saw potential, but recognised it required improvement - ‘This was a script that needed a lot of work, and the writer and director agreed. There were a number of scenes in particular that we knew could be really special and that I'm very proud of’.
Cusack and Kate Beckinsale previously came close to working together before Serendipity. Cusack had already written and cast himself in High Fidelity and was involved in selection process for other roles, for which Beckinsale auditioned. She failed to win the part, as the filming schedule came into direct conflict with her pregnancy. However, Cusack was sufficiently impressed that he convinced producers to pick her as the female lead - despite her breakout film, Pearl Harbor, yet to be released. When asked about her motivation for taking up the part of Sara, Beckinsale cited "in order to work with John [Cusack] who is utterly brilliant", as well as the ‘romantic, old world feel about it that I responded to’.
Co-starring was Jeremy Piven as best man Dean Kansky, an old friend of Cusack’s - having appeared in nine films together prior to Serendipity, since their first meeting at one of Cusack’s parents’ theatre workshops when they were both children. John Corbett also landed a minor role, playing Lars, Sara’s new aged clueless fiancé. This was not the first time Corbett had played an exaggerated emotional male love interest, with his role in Serendipity mirroring, and at times parodying, his character from Sex and the City.
Doubts over release timing
As the film was scheduled to be released in early October 2001, promotional interviews and trailers were set to be released throughout September. However, as a result of the 9/11 attacks, these plans were thrown into doubt, as some people who were involved were apprehensive releasing a film which focuses on the New York surroundings, so soon after the events. Despite this, they were in fact encouraged to promote the film, feeling there was a real need to bring back a sense of normality after what had happened. Speaking on the subject, Cusack said:
‘That was very difficult to do. I didn't want to do any talk-shows or do anything for the film, but then we had everyone, including the Mayor, saying 'Please come to New York'. Then I talked to the people at Miramax and Harvey Weinstein and he said 'We're a New York company, the film's set in New York - we should come and do this for the city.' I was OK with that, as long as I knew the movie was positioned right, as long as we were SUPPORTING the city. Most of all, the city WANTED us there. They wanted their baseball games back, and their movies, and this movie had a nice, romantic vision of New York that people want to remember, and will be again’.
Miramax also digitally edited out any shots in the film of the New York skyline that contained images of the world trade centers.
Box Office Performance
Serendipity opened at #2 behind Training Day at the US box office in early October, 2001, taking over $13 million in its opening weekend. It went on to gross just over $50 million in the US, later taking in over $28 million in foreign markets. By taking in over $78 million, it far exceeded its reported budget of $28 million - which also proved to be director Peter Chelsom’s first film to make a profit after his previous venture, Town & Country, was a financial failure, losing over $83 million.
Critical reception was mixed and it currently holds a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a user score of 79%. Rita Kempley of the Washington Post criticised the writing, suggesting it didn’t allow for characters to develop any real depth, which further highlighted the ‘overfamiliar and exasperating game of cat-and-mousie’. However, she did enjoy the natural banter between Cusack and Piven, proving to be the film’s primary source of comedic moments. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw was critical of the formulaic and predictable plot outline, which he felt was its main shortcoming as it lacked real credibility - making the overall experience forgettable. Jane Crowther, writing for the BBC, acknowledged the farfetched nature of the story, but praised it for being ‘Wittily scripted, beautifully played by an excellent cast’.