Audiences love seeing familiar faces together, provided they belong to stars burning with noticeable heat. Bogie and Bacall, Astaire and Rogers, even Hanks and Ryan for the sensitive ‘90s set—all could fill seats just by sharing a poster. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence might become one of those legendary (onscreen) pairings eventually. But if that’s the case, it’s not discernable in their latest picture together, Serena. Despite the charisma and glamour both of these Oscar darlings and box office supernovas bring to this would-be epic, the heat being radiated here would not toast a piece of bread. Then again, they didn’t have much hope of shining in this dismal, soapy black hole.
Located in the wooded mountains of North Carolina, Serena opens in 1929 as Bostonian George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) struggles to make ends meet for his logging and lumber business right outside of Asheville. The Depression is only beginning, and George’s stocks are taking a swan dive in New York just as an irritating sheriff (Toby Jones) keeps harping on about turning Pemberton’s land into a Smoky Mountains National Park of some sort.
This is when George meets Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), a mysterious blond of a similar WASPy New England family that died. In a fire. As their sole heir, she is rich, troubled, and perfect for a whirlwind romance. Well, presumably it was whirlwind since it all occurs via montage. In any case, she soon comes to Carolina as George’s new bride, proving to be just as ruthless in business tactics and clearing wood as her husband. Maybe even more so as she whispers sweet murders in George’s ears while making eyes at Rachel (Ana Ularu) and her bastard son…for whom George happens to be the father.
Serena has been a longtime forthcoming. To give you an idea, this picture’s shooting was completed before American Hustle was filmed and only just as the first Hunger Games film was being released into theaters. As directed by Danish filmmaker Suanne Bier, who crafted the original Brothers, as well as In a Better World, Serena seems on paper like the perfect type of melodrama that used to line the movie houses of yesteryear.
It’s a period setting, albeit now in a context where the Depression is period, and a visceral remote location like the North Carolina Smoky Mountains, which screams hardship and perseverance with every frame. There’s even a dangerous panther prowling around as a pair of passionate scions battle for the future of their business, their marriage, and their souls. It’s the kind of weepy tragedy that I can imagine Bette Davis and a resigned George Brent starring in once upon a time. Yet, the end result is as barren as the deforested land at the heart of Serena’s story.
What many of these great romantic epics have in common is a pair of lovers that crackle just as much as when they’re exchanging insults as kisses, but George and Serena seem ambivalent on both subjects. To be sure, there are many kisses and proclamations of love between the two, but much like the eventual shouting matches, they feel removed from a picture that paradoxically seems chopped into more pieces than a Robert Durst neighbor, yet still runs too long at a ponderous 108 minutes.
This problem is made abundantly clear early in the picture when George first lays eyes on Serena, remarking at their chance encounter that they will be married. Not only does the picture fast forward to their immediate marriage, but also through the wedding ceremony, the honeymoon, and the trip to North Carolina. All of these moments felt truncated from fully written and performed scenes, as there is no way Bier’s budget would allow for all the costumes and interior design to go to waste for a single fade-in-and-out shot of the wedding. But honestly, as jarring a form of storytelling as this appears, I am still grateful the movie was not longer.
Still as a result, the marriage between George and Serena is both one of convenience for the Pemberton family, as well as a hackneyed script by Christopher Kyle that has both parties speaking in banalities.
The earlier portion of the picture has better success with Serena proving to be a shrewder business partner than George, bringing her family’s know how from Colorado to clearing wood on the east coast, complete with a pet eagle in tow. And it is this financial conflict that proves the more pressing one when George does battle with government on the local and federal level, protecting his right to strip mine the land. But again, the story swings back to the listless romance once Serena becomes obsessed with George’s bastard son, and the film reaches for its absurdly ludicrous finale.
Both Cooper and Lawrence more than earned their Oscar nominations in Silver Linings Playbook, for which Lawrence also won the top prize that night. In that film, they proved that even in an America of diminished expectations, they could cha-cha their way to a happy ending that felt earned in large part because of both actors’ immense likability in their roles while standing next to each other.
But in Serena, both are lost in the woods as to what to do with these characters, especially Lawrence who cannot make heads or tails out of her intended femme fatale. Indeed, it appears that the filmmakers mistook enigmatic to mean poorly written, alternating Serena between Lady Macbeth levels of cunning and an uncomfortably hysterical stereotype. Cooper fares better as the silverspooned carpetbagger cliché with a confident smile. But in such a tedious hike like Serena, the appeal of both stars is lost in a film that flows like all other forms of mountain stream run-off: straight down.