Little known fact: Before Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence earned mass critical acclaim for “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” they made “Serena.” If you haven’t heard of the film, it’s probably because both actors (and every other indisputable talent linked to the project) are hoping it’ll stay under the radar.
Despite being filmed in 2012, “Serena” is just now making its U.S. theatrical premiere after an embarrassing on-demand release back in February. You read that right. Not only was this film — which stars two of the most bankable actors of the day — banished into some sort of horrible post-production limbo, it was also unceremoniously released via the 2000’s version of straight-to-video. Need there be any more proof that this film is a dud?
Probably not. But sadly, plenty of proof abounds.
In the lengthy, depression-era period piece, Cooper plays George Pemberton, a logging tycoon who quickly falls for Lawrence’s titular character while away on business. Serena is tenacious and sexy, but troubled. Very troubled. Town rumor says that, at age 12, she abandoned her family in a blazing house fire, leaving them all to perish. The audience knows Serena’s batshit before we’re given this titillating backstory (she’s got some weird obsession with taming eagles and could give “Orange is the New Black”’s Crazy Eyes a run for her money), and Pemberton’s friends aren’t exactly supportive of their union. But alas, the two stunners marry and head back to the small town that Pemberton calls home.
Wedded bliss doesn’t last for long, as Pemberton is expecting a child with a woman he met pre-Serena. Unsurprisingly, his new wife is not fond of the situation. (“Our love began the day we met,” she says. “Nothing before it even exists.”) As the film progresses, Serena makes it clear that the illegitimate child is not to consume an iota of her husband’s time or money. Pemberton dutifully obeys for a while, but the baby’s impending birth is not the only issue plaguing the unlikable couple.
The town sheriff has it out for the lumber baron. Cooper’s character has been been cooking the books, so to speak, and his timber cutting methods would hardly be OSHA-approved. His company, both socially and professionally, proves to be quite dangerous for all involved. Meanwhile, the vengeful Serena ends up with her own ax to grind after an unfortunate tragedy leaves her a very different sort of barren.
Sounds decent enough, right? Maybe on paper, in the acclaimed novel by Ron Rash. When translated to the screen, however, the film turns out to be a hotter mess than Serena herself. Simply put, this movie is bad. And it’s not even bad enough to be funny bad. It’s just embarrassing.
There’s something about the pace of “Serena” that’s off; the climaxes are dull and the resolutions (if you can even call them that) fall flat. The editing is full of choppy transitions that make little sense, and the heavy-handed symbolism in the film feels forced, much like the acting. All in all, it’s an uncomfortable viewing experience. It’s like watching someone you know blunder a presentation that was truly labored over.
Cooper, who wowed critics as Chris Kyle in “American Sniper,” can put on a great Southern drawl, but his Boston accent in “Serena” fades out more times than shoddy editing on a B movie. Lawrence’s performance isn’t going to win her any awards, either (for once). Her Serena is one-dimensional, melodramatic and surprisingly amateur, rendering the lackluster performances of these two heavyweights a cinematic anomaly. By the time the credits on the film role, the audience is left scratching their heads wondering, “How the hell did this happen?”
The answer might be in the film’s development — a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. To start with, “Serena” went through cast changes (Angelina Jolie was originally signed to the project) and a director change (Darren Aronofsky is probably thanking his lucky stars he passed on the film) before finally landing in the ill-suited hands of Cooper, Lawrence and director Susanne Bier (“A Better World”).
But perhaps there is no answer. Maybe “Serena” is just one of those freak accidents — a reminder to filmmakers that big names don’t always amount to big success stories or big profits. Here’s hoping Cooper and Lawrence’s upcoming collaboration, 2015’s “Joy,” fairs better.
Then again, how can it possibly do any worse?
“Serena” is now playing in Berkeley and is available on-demand.