If names were enough to equal box office, Serena would be a bonafide hit. “Serena! Starring Academy Award® Nominee Bradley Cooper, and Academy Award®-winning Jennifer Lawrence! Directed by Academy Award®-winning director Susanna Bier! Two desperate souls lost in North Carolina’s Smokey Mountains. See it!”
Alas, a movie is not comprised solely of stars but story, character, aesthetic, and movement. All of which Serena lacks. In spades.
Set in Depression-Era North Carolina, Serena attempts to paint a picture of a rugged America and of rugged and hardened Americans. Attempts but does not succeed. Cooper plays Pemberton, a tentative millionaire full of frontier logic and Don Draper eyes. To make money, Pemberton is levying this land against that, trying to hold on to it long enough to make a profit while skimming off the top in the interim. He isn’t very good at it, but good enough to keep the scam going long enough.
While on business in the North, Pemberton runs into Serena (Lawrence), and the two fall madly in love in roughly one montage/sex scene, and she returns with him to rule as Queen of the Shacks.
Serena is a strong, proud woman and quickly solves one of the worker’s problems, rattlesnakes, by importing a trained Eagle from Colorado to kill them. That wins their support, but then Serena becomes pregnant and loses the child, leading to quick insanity and full-blown Lady Macbeth.
Serena handles this plot development with the grace of a bull in a china shop. It treats other developments—the murder of a business partner, the dismembering of a worker, a bizarre prophecy, even a panther—with equal fluidity, making Serena one head-scratching moment after the other.
Directed by Danish filmmaker Susanna Bier, Serena lacks authenticity. Bier shot not in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina but in the Czech Republic. Maybe that’s not overtly obvious, but it doesn’t help matters. Nor does Cooper’s accent, which comes and goes like a summer breeze through an open window. Bostonian? Southern? English? Hard to tell, especially when he can hit all three and a few others over the course of one scene.
On paper, Serena should be a hit. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are two major stars, both with excellent work ahead and behind, but none of it here. The same goes for Bier, with A Better Life (2010) and Brothers (2004) displaying a strong voice. Instead, Serena is so sloppily constructed and acted that the entire movie feels like an obligation. Bier, Cooper, and Lawrence all signed contracts and had to make it, probably against their better judgments. Executive Producer Mark Cuban and his production company, 2929 Entertainment, funded it and thus had to release it. Magnolia Pictures, another company Cuban has interests in, was obliged to distribute it, and now Landmark Theaters, a chain in which, you guessed it, Mark Cuban is involved with, will screen it before it quietly slips into the secondary market.
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Produced by: Susanne Bier, Ben Cosgrove, Ron Halpern, Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz, Todd Wagner, Nick Wechsler
Written by: Christopher Kyle
Based on the book by Ron Rash
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 109 minutes, Opens March 27, 2015.