‘Serena’ stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in period costume. In theory, it should be prime Oscar-bait. Yet the film has sat on a shelf for almost two years despite the fact that its leads have become the two of biggest movie stars on the planet. The endless re-editing in post-production and countless film festival rejections have put a stink on ‘Serena’ that won’t wash off. All of which suggests that the movie might be a hilariously horrible train wreck worth watching in dazed wonder. Sadly, even that’s not the case. It’s just bad and bland, a waste of anyone’s time, even for those watching from the safe distance of irony.
Lawrence and Cooper star as a pair of foppish newlyweds in Depression era America attempting to launch a timber company in an impoverished mountain town. At first, they receive resistance from a community that thinks the greedy rich folk have come to take advantage of them. Then some accidents lead people to think the company is taking unnecessary risks. Then come some love triangles, and a dabble of psychosis tossed into the mix. The awkwardly structured and episodic narrative leaves no potential tragedy untapped and no dangling story thread satisfyingly wrapped. It’s hard to say what hurt the movie more, the dull material that Danish director Susanne Bier (‘Things We Lost in the Fire’) initially tried to mount as a movie or the endless rounds of editorial tinkering that removed all sense of drive, focus and structure from the proceedings. Either way, what audiences are left to endure is an absolute mess and not even a fun or insane one.
Bier sticks with a color palate of beiges and grays, giving the film the sense of being shot through a sepia filter even though it wasn’t. The color scheme was meant to evoke an older era, but ends up being a perfect representation of the tone of the film itself. Given that the movie features violence, betrayal, tragedy and insanity, it should offer some sense of drama. Yet that never actually happens. It’s just a series of sad events playing out with such a remarkable lack of excitement that it feels like a cinematic sedative. Nothing that happens onscreen resonates on an emotional, psychological or dramatic level. It’s just a pile of stuff presented with unearned level of somber seriousness. Perhaps Bier’s initial cut was more resonant, but far too uncommercial to fly with such famous faces. Or maybe the movie was always a turkey, only now it’s been fruitlessly chopped up to fail in a variety of ways.
If the movie has anything going for it, it’s the central pairing of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. They look good on screen together and share a natural chemistry. (Just ask David O. Russell, who clearly knows.) Neither is horrible in the movie. Cooper does his usual “sadsack struggling against adversity” thing and pulls off the role on a scene-by-scene basis even though the choppy movie doesn’t afford him the luxury of a dramatic arc. Lawrence has the far better part, first as a figure of feminist strength in casually misogynistic olden times and then as an unhinged nutball driven mad through isolation, tragedy and betrayal. Unfortunately, the awkward film serves her character even worse than Cooper’s. She slingshots from one wild emotional extreme to the next without a hint of psychological reasoning.
Even though you’ll see a delightful movie star pair charming it up in fits and starts, the duo are thoroughly wasted. Thankfully, the movie was kept from screens long enough that we’ve already seen these two strut their stuff properly in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and ‘American Hustle’. So, ‘Serena’ isn’t a wasted opportunity, it’s a footnote that already feels destined to be forgotten.
Some great movies have been robbed from audiences due to over-editing and poor releases over the years, but ‘Serena’ isn’t one of them. This movie likely would have been a failure in any form and at any time. At least now it will quietly and politely fail far from the eyes of the audiences who would have been disappointed the most.