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L.I.E., the title of filmmaker Michael Cuesta’s remarkable feature debut, refers to the Long Island Expressway, a highway that connects middle-class suburbia with Manhattan. But it also alludes to the treacherous swamp of mendacity through which Howie Blitzer, Cuesta’s 15-year-old protagonist, struggles to come of age.

Insightfully played by Paul Franklin Dano, Howie is haunted by the death of his mother, who was killed in an automobile accident on the titular artery that also claimed the lives of musician Harry Chapin and film director Alan Pakula. In a touching scene, he mournfully rummages through her belongings, sniffing her perfume and applying her lipstick. Howie’s father, Marty (Bruce Altman), is too preoccupied with his new girlfriend and his troubled construction business to notice that his son has fallen in with a gang of adolescent boys who get their kicks by burgling neighborhood houses.

Howie plans to run away to California with his best friend, Gary (Billy Kay), the gang’s punker ringleader. But after masterminding the robbery of a home owned by ex-Marine Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox), Gary takes off without Howie. Big John, a pedophile who has been paying Gary for sex, tracks Howie down and propositions him. When Marty is charged with construction fraud and arrested by the FBI, Howie has no one to turn to but Big John.

Cuesta exhibits a striking command of form. Each of his precisely composed images matters, and he employs a restrained color palette—primarily whites and pale blues—to express the lack of warmth in Howie’s environment.

Even more impressive is the director’s gift for creating multidimensional characters. Virginal Howie’s sexual orientation remains undefined; at times, his attachment to Gary appears to go beyond friendship. Marty’s neglect of his son stems as much from his inability to come to terms with his wife’s death as from a lack of affection. Cox’s superbly realized Big John isn’t simply a villainous pedophile. Like the child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, he’s a sympathetic monster, ashamed of the compulsions that drive him. The ambiguous relationship between Big John and Howie is L.I.E.’s greatest triumph. Although they express concern for one another, we can never be sure how much of Big John’s kindness is prompted by desire, or the extent to which Howie knowingly exploits the power he holds over the man. The protracted scene in which Big John tenderly shaves Howie’s face with a straight razor functions as a pithy metaphor for the equivocal mixture of benevolence and coercion that marks their association.

But Cuesta’s mastery of style and character is undermined by contrived plotting. Melodramatic incidents intended to propel the narrative fail to dovetail with L.I.E.’s naturalistic tone. The sequence in which Marty’s business associate suffers a fatal heart attack during lunch is crudely perfunctory, as is the episode in which Marty is arrested in his home by the FBI. (Is the bureau chartered to haul away and imprison persons accused of questionable business practices? Would its agents arrest a teenager’s sole guardian without arranging for the child’s welfare?) The film concludes with a skimpily motivated and implausibly staged murder, reminiscent of the arbitrary shootings that Jean-Luc Godard used as punctuation marks to conclude his movies.

Aware that pedophilia is one of the last remaining cinema taboos, Cuesta pulls his punches by stopping short of depicting a sexual relationship between Howie and Big John. (A sentimental scene in which Howie recites a Walt Whitman poem awakens the pederast’s sense of responsibility and dampens his lechery.) Had he dared to go the distance, L.I.E. would have been an even richer, more unsettling work that few theaters would have risked exhibiting. Nevertheless, the filmmaker’s empathy for his characters’ messy, wounded lives imbues L.I.E. with a sense of compassion absent from the similarly themed Kids, in which director Larry Clark exploited the dispassionate sexuality, drug abuse, and aimless violence of adolescents to titillate audiences. Cuesta cares deeply about the fallen world he portrays and, despite his film’s lapses, makes us share his sympathy.

For more than 45 years, Serendipity 3, on East 60th Street in Manhattan, has been serving sweet treats, including its trademarked Frrrozen Hot Chocolate. Serendipity, director Peter Chelsom’s romantic comedy, resembles a confection whipped up in that restaurant’s kitchen—a sugary dish designed to please moonstruck adolescents but too cloying for most grown-up palates.

In Marc Klein’s swoony screenplay, Jonathan Trager (John Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) meet while Christmas-shopping at Bloomingdale’s. Although each has a significant other, the pair feel an immediate attraction and spend the evening skating in Central Park and sipping the titular restaurant’s signature beverage. Sara rejects Jonathan’s invitation for a second encounter. A believer in destiny, she argues that if they are really meant for each other, fate will reunite them.

Several years later, Jonathan, working for a New York-based television-news service, and Sara, a therapist now living in San Francisco, are separately headed for the altar. He’s about to wed Halley (Bridget Moynahan), a dark-haired beauty who resembles Sara, and she’s engaged to New Age musician Lars (John Corbett), a cloddish Kenny G clone. But both are haunted by the memory of the magical evening they shared. Assisted by his best friend, New York Times obit writer Dean (Jeremy Piven), Jonathan discovers Sara’s whereabouts and heads west to find her. Simultaneously, Sara, accompanied by her confidante Eve (Molly Shannon), flies to Manhattan to see if she can locate Jonathan. Both fail in their quests and settle for second-best.

Just kidding.

To be fair, moviegoers with an appetite for such froth will find Serendipity above-average, if only because it doesn’t star Meg Ryan and wasn’t written or directed by Nora Ephron. Lovely Beckinsale is a charmer, and the high-gloss production is easy on the eyes. But from the opening scene, Klein’s screenplay is wholly predictable, and his desperate machinations to keep his protagonists separated until the fadeout make the film’s 90 minutes seem much longer. As in America’s Sweethearts, Cusack’s considerable talents are wasted in an undemanding role. Charmless Piven, the poor man’s Jack Lemmon, fails to salvage some sour one-liners, and Shannon is stuck with a plain-Jane supporting role. (Eugene Levy, by contrast, injects some much-needed merriment into his few scenes as an imperious Bloomingdale’s salesman.) It’s distressing to find Chelsom, whose offbeat English features Hear My Song and Funny Bones uncovered poetry and humor in everyday life, reduced to directing such saccharine piffle.

Serendipity closes with the lovers exchanging names to mark the official beginning of their committed relationship, an ending swiped from another Manhattan-set romantic comedy, Peter Yates’ 1969 John and Mary. Although that movie is no great shakes, it attempts to address changes wrought by the sexual revolution by having its protagonists, played by Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, make love the night they meet without learning each other’s names until the final scene. Despite its triviality, this nearly forgotten film reflected the sexual mores of its era, unlike Serendipity, which inhabits a never-never land untarnished by the faintest vestige of reality. CP