Serendipity (PG)<br></br>Mean Machine (15)<br></br>The Hired Hand (12)<br></br>Lovely Rita (15)

Tom's comfy loafers on the wrong feet
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The Independent Culture

Serendipity (PG) is nothing if not festive. It opens in a toy kingdom New York, with steam puffing from every grate, feathery snowflakes swirling and Louis Armstrong purring "Cool Yule" on the soundtrack. There's so much goodwill in the air that two Christmas shoppers can reach for the same pair of gloves in Bloomingdale's, and they can end up going out for a hot chocolate, rather than clobbering each other with their umbrellas.

The shoppers are Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale). They get on well, but they're both in relationships, so she insists that they should trust in destiny. He'll write his phone number on a five-dollar bill, then spend it; she'll write hers on a novel's title page, then sell it to a second-hand bookstore. If they're meant to be together, the gods will guide the book to his hands or the bill to hers.

Jonathan is sceptical. "This is just wrong," he pleads. "You don't just have the most incredible night of your life with a perfect stranger and leave it to fate, do you?" And the only answer to that is: well, no, you don't. If you thought you'd met the love of your life, you'd be idiotic to let them go so easily, not least because you'd be inviting phonecalls from anyone who got hold of the numbers and assumed you were selling sexual services.

For me, Serendipity was scuppered almost before it began. If a romantic comedy is to seduce us, we have to be urging the inevitable centre-screen kiss to happen. But when we next meet Jonathan, a few years later, he has a beautiful fiancée whom the script gives no bad points whatsoever – so there's no reason why we should want him to go chasing off, the day before his wedding, after some madly superstitious girl he once bumped into. Ah well. Chase after her he does, at the very moment that she sets out to chase after him.

Much of Serendipity is watchable, largely because of the other characters. Eugene Levy steals scenes as an anally retentive shop assistant, and Jeremy Piven has more chemistry with Cusack (his real-life best friend) than Beckinsale does. Both leads are adequate, but she isn't the comedienne that Meg Ryan is, and he is too bedraggled and interesting to step into Tom Hanks's comfy loafers. Whatever the film might claim, their relationship just wasn't meant to be.

Mean Machine (15) is the third in this year's series of British comedy-dramas set in prisons. It's also the worst by some margin. A remake of Burt Reynolds's The Longest Yard (its US title), it stars Vinnie Jones as a disgraced ex-England captain who trains a team of inmates to play football against the warders. Everything about it is bungled embarrassingly. Just don't tell Vinnie Jones I said so.

The Hired Hand (12) has rarely been seen in its original form since its release in 1971, so the newly restored version is overdue confirmation of what a graceful, painterly parable it is. Peter Fonda directs and stars as a cowboy who's tired of mooching from town to town and wants to return to the wife and daughter he walked out on. Alan Sharp's script has few words, but it's extraordinarily eloquent on the bonds between men and women and between men and men. They don't make westerns like this any more. And I know, because I saw American Outlaws a fortnight ago.

Lovely Rita (15) is a disjointed, laconic study of adolescent alienation in Austria. There are some bright moments, but, to be honest, not many.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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