Review: Serena

– by Tom Munday


serena posterIn 2012, two of Hollywood’s hottest stars teamed up for one of the year’s biggest Oscar contenders. The movie was a lively and optimistic dramedy about mental heath, love, obsession, and dance. It was Silver Linings Playbook, and its leading man and lady, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, bounced magnificently off one another. Flash forward one year, and American Hustle brought director David O. Russell, Cooper, and Lawrence back together. Somehow, O. Russell got even better performances out of said shining stars. Flash-forward to the present, and Cooper and Lawrence’s third collaboration, Serena, is set for release. How does it fare compared to Playbook and Hustle? Um…

Audiences have been longing for another Cooper/Lawrence collaboration. This Oscar nominee/Oscar winner team-up throws two of Hollywood’s prettiest people into each other’s gaze. Seriously, who doesn’t love these two?! Sadly, Serena gives us way too much of them. The movie, based on Ron Rash’s novel of the same name, suffered major issues throughout production and distribution. Filming finished in early 2012, shortly before Cooper and Lawrence moved onto bigger projects (the Hunger Games series, The Place Beyond the Pines etc). Lawrence, flipping between franchises and indie-dramas, probably forgot Serena existed. Cooper, throughout the movie, looks like he would rather be doing another God-awful Hangover flick. Serena gives them something unusual to do. Sadly, that is one of few aspects I can applaud it for. The studio, dumping this pre-Oscar season, had no idea how to market this behemoth.

So, what is the story about? Well, that is actually a damn good question. It kicks off with Entrepreneur/timber empire head George Pemberton (Cooper) throwing every resource at his Appalachian wilderness home. Struggling through Depression-era North Carolina, Pemberton constructs a town smack-bang in the middle of a national park. The opportunistic landowner faces harsh words from pro-environmentalists and the law, Led by Sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones). Unexpectedly, he becomes swept up in entrepreneur Serena(Jennifer Lawrence)’s ever-lasting glow.

Admittedly, B-Coop and J-Law’s awe-inspiring charms may be affecting my analysis of Serena. They are both extremely likeable celebrities and classy performers. Indeed, Serena is not their fault. Director Susanne Bier (Brothers, Things We Lost in the Fire) is wholly responsible for this messy and cumbersome western-drama. Despite achieving indie success in Danish and mainstream cinema, her foray into broad romantic-drama immediately fades from memory. The movie has several interesting, albeit uneasy, ideas and plot-threads. It attempts to deconstruct its own predictable narrative within the confines of western-drama. However, in its attempt to become the new Outlaw Joey Wales or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the movie loses balance before crashing.
Developing an uneven mix of Shakespearian relationship-drama and period soap opera, it dabbles in eroticism, obsession, gender politics, and capitalism before ditching them. Unlike most revisionist westerns, Serena has little story, character, or thematic relevance. In fact, it never comes close to reinvigorating the once-admired genre. The first third relies on its lead and setting’s allure. Telegraphing major twists and turns immediately, its introduction spoon-feeds vital plot machinations and character arcs. Bier cares little for consistency, coherence, or even emotional resonance. Serena, lacking a core storyline or theme, goes off on tangents defined by gorgeous imagery and silky montages. Her storytelling muddles vital details, distorting the narrative’s relationship with its lead character. Manipulated by Cooper’s charm, he shifts between well-intentioned pioneer and vindictive moron. It even implies a homoerotic relationship with business partner Buchanan (David Dencik) to briefly raise the stakes. However, the story merely gallops past anything of interest, heart, or intrigue. Thankfully, the cinematography distracts from its uneasy pace and kooky direction.

A behind-the-scenes documentary about Serena would be fascinating. However, we are currently stuck with a forgettable, and lugubrious cinematic hiccup. Losing track of its intended audience, Serena’s tonal leaps distort this dour experience. Given only brief, exposition-heavy introductions, its characters carry surface-level qualities. If they’re movie-star pretty: they’re commendable people, If they are not: they are sniveling evildoers. Like the movie itself, Lawrence’s character goes through several mood swings and impulsive actions. Treated like Pemberton in the workplace, her raw determination crafts many solid moments. However, in the second-two thirds, she transitions from strong-filled feminine role model to unpredictable tyrant. Serena, disguising itself as a poetic meditation on the first world and humankind, is a pretentious misfire.

Inexplicably, it takes itself way too seriously! Its structure develops a stench of self-indulgence; awkwardly flipping between sex scenes, violent industrial accidents, philosophical ramblings, and hokey dialogue sequences. The story picks up and drops certain threads without warning. At first, Pemberton and Serena’s relationship turns this pioneer-drama into a soppy love story. Skipping over vital details, its takes merely a quick montage for them to meet, marry, then work on the town’s immediate future together. Bier crafts a ponderous and aimless love letter to westerns’ past. Attempting to salvage her work, Bier even hints at religion and the supernatural. Sadly, it all builds to a laughable and ham-fisted climax.

B-Coop and J-Law have gone through several highs and lows. Cooper transitioned from pretty-boy to thespian and Lawrence became one of Hollywood’s brightest youngsters. However, as Serena proves, the script and direction are more important than chemistry. This underwhelming and repulsive melodrama doesn’t help anyone. Despite the gorgeous locations, intriguing performances, and unique ideas, this western-drama suffers from a lackluster screenplay and misguided vision. Ideally, watch Playbook and Hustle a few times over…again. Sorry, Rocket Raccoon and Katniss.


Poster credit: Wikimedia
Banner credit: Independent

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