Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Serena. (Larry D. Horricks/Magnolia Pictures)
This weekend sees a sweeping period romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who, aside from being two of the biggest names in Hollywood in their own right, are also a legendary romantic pairing when taken together (ala Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle).
Though it might seem a given, this film isn’t going to end up being the next blockbuster smash at your local multiplex, mostly because it won’t be playing in many theaters at all. Serena is also going to DVD and Video On Demand (VOD), a fate which one can’t help but see as rather ignominious considering the sheer wattage of its leads. Now, the easiest conclusion to jump to here is that the film must be extraordinarily bad to deserve such treatment. In reality though, the likely issue Serena found in its marketability most probably stemmed from just how ordinary it really is.
Directed by Danish auteur Susanne Bier, Serena takes place in rural North Carolina, circa 1929. George Pemberton (Cooper) is an ambitious young logging tycoon, hell-bent on dominating the Smoky Mountains in the face of mounting financial pressures due to the Great Depression. Though tough and rugged, George finds himself easily drawn in by the sultry charms of one Serena (Lawrence) a mix between a noir femme fatale and an Annie-Oakley-esque frontierswoman.
Sexy and fierce, Serena entangles George in a torrid love affair—all the while entwining herself inexorably into his business ventures. When she finds out that she’s barren, Serena goes insane with rage and begins destroying George’s livelihood piece by piece, even going after a former lover who once bore his child.
Eventually, this combustible pairing predictably ingrates into the flames of violent madness.
Indeed, predictable is a word I would use to describe much of Serena. The Smoky Mountains are rendered in the exact kind of gritty, ash-sepia you’d expect from a Depression-set film, and the actors blend right in with their fitting, but unexceptional turns.
Cooper and Lawrence still retain their natural spark, but the shouty, convoluted chamber-menace of this James M. Cain knockoff doesn’t really play to either of their strengths. In addition, the story is as long and lumbering as one of the great trees George’s company knocks down, and similarly, it too falls apart in its third act—devolving into shrill, over the top melodrama with the arrival of a creepy drifter (Rhys Ifans) who becomes obsessed with Serena.
All that being said, Serena isn’t truly bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I liked it a good deal more than the utterly phony American Hustle—a film which not only hit theaters, but was a hit with audiences. But, what can you do, film noirs don’t sell anymore, no matter how gargantuan the names are.
If Serena and George’s romance had been more in the syrupy, Nicholas Sparks vein, perhaps the butts would plunk in seats. However, given that Serena seems content to skirt romance—or any other defining genre trait— this grey little film all but doomed to nest in obscurity (select theaters + VOD) for good.
Now playing in select theaters and VOD.
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).