The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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Love Isn't Better the Second Time Around

Magnolia Pictures
 109 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence

If you had to bet, you would probably have wagered a bundle that a movie made in the wake of Silver Linings Playbook that reteamed Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as a tempestuous married couple and was directed by acclaimed Danish director Susanne Bier would be a hit. You would have lost. So too, undoubtedly did the studio, as the Cooper/Lawrence vehicle Serena sat on the shelf for two years and another reteaming of the Oscar-nominated duo in American Hustle. Now, it finally shows up belatedly in a handful of theaters before it will undoubtedly disappear for good in the depths of Netflix.


Is this a story of a lost treasure that somehow got mismanaged by its producers all the way to obscurity? Sadly, no. It’s a more mundane story of an inept screenplay and indifferent direction overcoming the leads and a host of good period detail en route to a thoroughly ordinary movie experience. Serena is neither a good movie nor an enjoyably bad one, but rather, a forgettable one.


Serena is based on a novel by Ron Rash that, according to its reviews was a successful Southern Gothic melodrama. And, indeed, there’s plenty of those lurid elements here as well, certainly enough to make a juicy potboiler. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of other elements present as well that seem to have come from vastly different types of pictures. In fact, my first impression on seeing the film was that it was a fictionalized version of a true story, a cautionary morality tale of what can happen to the very wealthy.


In Serena, the very wealthy is George Pemberton (Cooper), heir to a family lumber company based in the Smoky Mountains in the early 1930s. The Federal Government and some local conservationists want to make the land a national park (most people know how that’s going to turn out), and Pemberton is determined to fight them by fair means or foul. In this case, the foul means consist of greasing the wheels of some local politicians. The county sheriff (Toby Jones) suspects what George is doing and is trying to get the goods on him to put him away. To make matters worse, George has engaged in some risky borrowing, and his entire business empire has the stability of a house of cards.


Into this Depression-era version of Wall Street comes George’s new wife Serena (Lawrence), to whom he shows his domain in a whirlwind sequence of romance and passion that bring back Silver Linings memories. However, Serena is no mere trophy bride; her family background is lower class and she’s got a shrewd eye for business and for the back country. One thing that catches her eye is George’s former teenage housekeeper, now with a baby in tow, and another is George’s numbers crunching partner Buchanan (David Dencik). Buchanan resents becoming the odd man out, both in a business sense and emotionally.


Needless to say, Buchanan isn’t around for very long, thanks to a hunting accident while alone with George. And, needless to say, the sheriff suspects foul play. Actually, up until this point, the film is a reasonably good potboiler melodrama. However, when Buchanan leaves the movie, things go downhill fast. The reason for the decline is not that Buchanan was a particularly memorable or compelling screen presence. Instead, neither Bier nor screenwriter Christopher Kyle seemed to know where to go next.


So, we get supernatural elements, courtesy of Galloway (Rhys Ifans), who starts out as George’s hunting guide and becomes Serena’s guardian after she saves his life and he informs her that his mother foretold she would do so. He’s no guardian angel though, since his assistance often involves using his hunting knife on two-legged targets. And Serena alternates between bouts of depression and channeling Lady Macbeth in her efforts to help George achieve his dream of creating a new empire in Brazil, where the authorities aren’t nearly as eco-conscious. Surprisingly, what we don’t get, although audiences probably expect to see it, is George becoming increasingly entangled in a cover-up of Buchanan’s death. Instead, that potentially intriguing plot thread simply vanishes.


Jennifer Lawrence actually acquits herself well here, or at least as well as she can when her character changes drastically from one scene to the next with little rhyme or reason. Serena’s mood swings are frequent and not explained at all in the script, although I got the feeling that the script had to edit the material in the book down somewhat.  Bradley Cooer, on the other hand, is mostly bland and laid back, except for a couple of scenes late in the movie in which he expresses concern for his illegitimate child.


Serena was filmed in Czechoslovakia, substituting for North Carolina, and the cinematography and production design are excellent. Unlike many current movies, I never got the feeling from watching Serena that I was seeing modern day actors place dress-up in period costumes. The film includes a few scenes of the Pembertons in high society, and they Great Gatsby vibe of those scenes is equally authentic.


By all rights, Serena should have been a much better movie, and the first third of the film is highly promising. The source material can be played for romance, melodrama, or period political intrigue, and Cooper and Lawrence are perfectly cast. Unfortunately, Susanne Bier never decides how she wants the movie to play, and the script feels like a number of connecting scenes are missing. The end result is more like seeing an actor’s workshop featuring Jennifer Lawrence instead of a finished motion picture, and, almost as bad, Bradley Cooper is reduced to little more than eye candy. The scenes that do work are still quite effective, but, overall, Serena feels more like a gigantic missed opportunity than anything else.

Read other reviews of Serena:


Serena (2014) on IMDb