What do Serendipty and America’s Sweethearts have in common? Both are romantic comedies and both star John Cusack. The similarities end right there. America’s Sweethearts was a jokily contrived mess that never seemed to know what it wanted to be, and was as flatly directed as a sitcom. And Serendipity? Serendipity is not only the best romantic comedy to hit theaters since Bridget Jones’s Diary, it’s enough to make you joyfully forgive director Peter Chelsom for the star-heavy disappointment known as Town and Country (which sat on a shelf for three years and disappeared from theaters in considerably less time last spring). Serendipity may not be as quirkily adventurous as Chelsom’s first two features, Hear My Song and Funny Bones, but it’s clearly the work of the same man — the work of a man with a gift for strong characterizations and a stylish, beautiful look that blissfully integrates character and locale. Rarely have New York City and San Francisco looked more romantically appealing than in this film. Yet both seem undeniably real, because the world that Chelsom shows actually does exist within our broader, often less appealing, world. What Chelsom and his cinematographer, John De Borman (who also shot Chelsom’s The Mighty), have done is to isolate that world — the romantic, attractive world of these cities — and distill it in the film. It helps that the screenplay by first-timer Marc Klein is a first-rate confection with a gloriously loopy romantic center. Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale, Pearl Harbor) “meet cute” while trying to buy the same last pair of black cashmere gloves at Bloomingdale’s just before Christmas. The end up spending the evening together and, despite the fact that both are otherwise attached, fall in love, only to have fate intervene twice and separate them. Years later, as they’re both on the verge of getting married, each decides to take one last stab at finding the other. The only clues are a five-dollar bill with his name and phone number written on it and a book she sold to a used-book store (her feeling being that if they are meant to be together, he’ll find it) with her name and number in it. It’s a nice concept, but the playful manner in which the story is constructed and developed — along with Chelsom’s handling of the action and the actors — is what truly makes the entire film work. Granted, the screenplay cheats a little by portraying neither of their soon-to-be-spouses as terribly likable. Beckinsale’s fiance, Lars (TV actor John Corbett), is particularly a buffoon — a self-absorbed crackpot musician who makes Zamfir and his Pan flute look like high art. Moreover, the screenplay cleverly has both break-ups occur offscreen, thereby minimizing any hint of pain they may have caused. Cusack and Beckinsale are an attractive couple and play well off each other. They have a natural screen chemistry and both evidence good comic timing — especially Cusack, who is so much better served here than in America’s Sweethearts that it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor. They aren’t alone, however, since there are excellent — and excellently written — supporting turns from Jeremy Piven (Rush Hour 2) as Cusack’s obituary-writer best friend and Molly Shannon (Osmosis Jones) as Beckinsale’s voice-of-reason best friend. Buck Henry makes a funny, brief appearance early in the film (perhaps to show that there are no hard feelings between himself and Chelsom over Town and Country) as a shopper who also wants the same pair of gloves. The biggest laughs, however, come from Eugene Levy as a snooty, but easily bribed, Bloomingdale’s salesman with a penchant for sarcastic remarks. The cast, the script, the direction all blend together seamlessly to provide a welcome antidote to a movie season that kicked off with the mind-numbingly awful Glitter.