You know those movies where you look at its individual pieces and then its final results, and you wonder, “What the fuck happened?” That’s Serena.
The drama based on the best-selling novel by Ron Rash reunites Silver Linings Playbook stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. And bonus prestige points, this romantic drama hooked as its helmer the celebrated Susanne Bier, of After The Wedding and In a Better World acclaim. The movie math seemed simple: This will be excellent. From its earliest announcements, people were predicting Oscar buzz. And yet here Serena sits. Hitting limited release after a month on VOD. Why?
Oh. So many reasons.
In Depression-era North Carolina, lumber baron Pemberton (Cooper) falls for the beautiful but “wounded” Serena (Lawrence). In business, they are perfect partners—as well as perfect partners in crime, when required! But when their plan for a perfect life is complicated by other matters, their marriage falls apart through a string of bloody confrontations.
It’s a potentially intriguing premise. But unfortunately, Serena—which clocks in just under two hours—feels like it’s a highlights reel rather than a complete narrative. Instead of any kind of courtship, Pemberton spots the titular beauty, stalks her for a few minutes. (On horseback, so it’s romantic, not creepy. I guess.) Then after introducing himself he proposes. And she says yes. And then sex scenes. Sex scenes. Sex scenes.
We barely know these characters, but oh! How beautifully they bone. Actually, if you liked Silver Linings Playbook but wished it had lots of sex scenes, that might be enough a reason to see Serena. It doesn’t disappoint on that front.
The film races through plot points at a pace that doesn’t allow for character development beyond the most two-dimensional sketches. So scenes that could have been heartbreaking or gut-wrenching, fall frustratingly flat. It feels like somewhere along the way to release there was a three-hour cut of this movie that might just be stupendous. But as it is, this Serena feels like the kind of cut lazy editors make for cable airings. You get the idea, but it feels chopped down for time.
Another obstacle to enjoying Serena is a script that is cringe-inducingly bad. Here’s some actual lines of dialogue:
“She’s beautiful. Wounded…It’s a pity you don’t stand a chance with her.”
“I think we should be married.”
“Our love began the day we met. NOTHING that happened before even exists.”
“I love you so much. And I have your child inside me.”
“They need to know that it was a woman that tamed the eagle.”
In case you’re curious, that’s not a metaphor. There’s a literal eagle. An a metaphorical/actual mountain lion.
Anyway, the biggest disappointment in Serena is that somehow all the chemistry and sex appeal Lawrence and Cooper shared in Silver Linings Playbook is completely extinguished here. Yeah, they’re fucking like bunnies, but it feels hollow where it’s meant to feel hot. Lawrence looks incredible, channeling Cate Blanchett realness. Cooper looks intense and all that. But the terrible dialogue proves too much for either to overcome. Then the script takes an incredibly stupid turn, transforming this movie from tragic romance to another “Don’t fuck crazy” parable.
It’s not all bad though. Rhys Ifans is inexplicably steamy in a supporting role as a brooding mountain man, who is also psychic. (Not that that has any relevance on the plot.) And visually, Serena is gorgeous. The cinematography is stark and striking. The rough and tumble forests of the South are presented as places of danger and possibility. Bier’s color palette is warm and romantic in a way the story itself never manages. But the pieces just never come together. The drama is dishwater dull. The charisma of its stars is lost amid its maudlin tone. And in the end, Serena is lovely, but dumb and forgettable.