The question, when watching Serena, is “Where did this go wrong?” Shot in 2012, it re-teamed proven screen couple Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for an adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel directed by Susanne Bier, an award-winning Danish filmmaker. There’s a lot of talent on both sides of the camera in Serena, so why did it sit on the shelves for three years before getting a hasty, barely-there release? Answer: “Because it’s a mess featuring bad performances.” Despite the talent of her stars, Bier wasn’t able to draw quality performances from either Cooper or Lawrence, and their various affectations and unemotional performances make for deeply unlikeable characters. David O. Russell might have a yelling problem, but he knows how to get a great performance out of his actors—which Lawrence must agree with as she defends Russell as an “amazing collaborator”.
Cooper stars as George Pemberton, a timber baron hit hard by the stock market crash in 1929. His dreams of expanding his empire to Brazil are put on hold because he can barely hold onto his claim in the Smoky Mountains, thanks to non-existent credit and the pressures of a committee that wants to establish a national park, which for some unknown reason includes the town sheriff (I’m a big fan of Toby Jones, but he is horribly miscast as a backwoods sheriff.) No reason for the enmity between the sheriff and George is ever given, which leaves half the story without any clear motivation.
In the midst of this odd power struggle, George meets Serena, a beautiful heiress with a tragic past (is there any other kind?). Serena comes from a timber family, so she expects to be treated as George’s equal in business once they’re married. George is willing enough to go along with this, but his men are slow to join in. This part of the movie actually works the best, as Serena shows off her knowledge of business and trees and woodsy stuff, including axe-wielding and falconry. But it quickly devolves into camp, and by the time George murders his business partner because Serena is like, “Boo is jealous,” the movie has totally gone off the rails.
The problems start with the script, which features really terrible dialogue, but Bier never settles on a cohesive tone, either. When the movie seems like it’s going to be Macbeth in the Woods, it works okay enough. Serena’s need to have George all to herself, especially in the wake of a miscarriage, is a decent set up, but the movie never really commits to that premise. The first half of Serena is There Will Be Blood, and then in the second half it abruptly changes gears and becomes The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. What movie do you want to make? A portrait of a failed American dream, or a psychological thriller about an emotionally damaged woman? Either one is fine, but those are two different movies that do not go together.
Making things worse is that pretty much everyone is miscast. Cooper sports a terrible Boston accent that comes and goes at random and he’s unable to overcome the bad dialogue and thinly drawn character and turn George into an interesting person. I challenge anyone to give a sh*t about George—it’s not possible. And Lawrence is not on her A-game either. She can’t sell the dialogue and she seems uncomfortable at times, to the point that her chemistry with Cooper, effective in other movies, is virtually non-existent here. These are talented actors, but between the bad script and Bier’s inability to set a tone, they flounder and ultimately succumb to Serena’s preposterousness. Don’t even get me started on the ending—it’s ludicrous.
Serena works best as a cautionary tale, a reminder that A-list names are not enough to propel a movie if the script sucks. Far from the award bait it was intended to be, it will go down as an oddity in the careers of Cooper and Lawrence, a rare misfire for both. And hopefully Bier fares better on her next project, directing The Night Manager for the BBC. It’s hard to imagine her doing any worse than this. Serena is a series of wrong decisions right from the start.
Attached – Jennifer Lawrence covers her face while out for dinner with Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth.