What went wrong? That’s usually the first question I ask myself when I start searching through the On Demand catalog of movies and see two massive stars on the thumbnail of the poster. The world of On Demand cinema certainly has become more respectable in recent years. It’s not the dumpster of failures it used to be. Don’t get me wrong: There are still horrid movies that skip the expense of a theatrical release and land On Demand with a squishy plop. However, some of the movies are simply interesting, difficult-to-market curiosities that tend to sink. That does not apply to the aching bore that is “Serena.”
The first danger sign is when stars at the height of their career are in a movie you’ve never heard of. In this case, two of the brightest stars in the Hollywood sky: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Actors who both rake in the cash and award nominations. If these two mega stars are appearing in a film shuttled into the On Demand library, something must way off.
George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a would-be timber magnate, dealing with the fallout of the Great Depression. He’s the living embodiment of the American Dream—a man who believes in hard work, pines for a magnificent life and the love of a good woman. He meets Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) and becomes enchanted with the mysterious beauty with a tragic past. They marry, and he takes her back to what is supposed to be the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina but looks more like the countryside of an Eastern European nation with a good tax incentive. Pemberton and his comely wife work on creating a timber empire but soon are hampered by a number of obstacles, including some shady business dealings and the government trying to preserve the land for a state park (cue Leslie Knope!). The movie feels tethered to something like Gatsby, where desperate characters find themselves doing terrible things for all the wrong reasons, struggling to hold onto the life they believe they were meant to have.
I find myself at odds with Jennifer Lawrence. A dozen movies into her storied career and I can’t tell if she’s any good. She’s certainly easy on the eyes, but she gives the ears a little bit of grief. I find her quite tolerable in movies with directors worth their salt; David O’Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) seems capable of getting the best work out of her. Unfortunately, she’s pretty bland and downright grating in big-budget franchises like “X-Men” and “The Hunger Games.” Her raw sexuality and natural charisma seem to come and go, moving from overdrive to idle like a rusty gearshift.
She’s not alone in this incongruent acting exercise. Bradley Cooper is a talented guy, but his highfalutin Northeast accent feels like something you’d hear someone belting out in a community-theatre production of “Newsies.” The direction is equally inconsistent. There’s a scene early on when Serena first comes to the timber farms of North Carolina and talks with her husband and his business partner. Each is smoking a cigarette or a cigar, and every ramshackle cut between them shows them inhaling smoke like there’s million dollars riding on whoever finishes first. In fact, the character of Buchanan spends almost every frame of film puffing more smoke than a coal-burning power plant. If you made up a drinking game that required a sip every time someone takes a puff in “Serena,” you’d be dead of alcohol poisoning by the end of act one.
“Serena” is a strange movie—a Depression-era drama cloaked in browns and beiges, with shoddy acting and production design. In the hands of a better filmmaker, it could have been a beautiful monstrosity. There are hints of the haunting, dark and gritty drama it could have been; yet, it never achieves any level of believability. It never feels like anything more than two notable actors doing some underfunded episode of “Masterpiece Theatre.” Jennifer Lawrence gets the brunt of the blame for this. The role feels beyond her limited skill set: a young girl playing an old soul. It never burns bright enough to make you forget you’re watching an actor with a limited range, trying to tackle a role too big for her britches.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Rhys Ifans
Directed by Susanne Bier