Individually, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are the hottest actors on the planet, and together they have starred in two recent Academy Award nominees for best picture. Pair them with an Oscar-winning director, and what’s the worst that could happen? “Serena.”
Given the clout of its two stars and the groupthink that prevails in Hollywood, it’s certain that everything about this project was double- and triple-checked. Surely Cooper and Lawrence were comfortable with Danish director Susanne Bier, whose “In a Better World” won the Oscar for best foreign language film of 2010, and the script must have passed through more hands than a bootleg copy of the new “Avengers” movie. It’s likely that several people in the production chain described this big-money melodrama as a Smoky Mountains riff on “Giant,” with lumber in place of cattle. Yet it’s more like a giant turkey.
In the Rock Hudson role, Cooper is George Pemberton, the tree farmer who moves feisty heiress Serena (Lawrence, aka the new Elizabeth Taylor) from Colorado to a small town in North Carolina. In the James Dean hunky-handyman role is Rhys Ifans as Galloway, the only crewman who doesn’t mistake the ranch-bred beauty for a spoiled pushover. Indeed, he thinks they have a cosmic connection, and he’s willing to die — or kill — for her.
Turns out there’s plenty of killing to be done. In our first glimpse of George, he is hunting for an elusive panther that is a threat to his property. A bigger threat comes in the form of the federal government, which wants to turn the virgin forest into a national park. It’s the Depression year of 1929, and sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) joins George’s lieutenants in urging him to take the buyout. But the offer isn’t enough to support Serena in the manner to which she’s accustomed, and George decides instead to plunder the forest for all it’s worth. And to smooth the path, he’ll have to get rid of some human obstacles (including the local Cherokee woman who bore his illegitimate son).
With Serena functioning as Lady Macbeth, the bodies pile up like firewood, yet this handsomely wrought film doesn’t work as either a thriller or a psychological drama. Bier is an even-keeled director, and on the few occasions when the actors emote (like when Serena learns about the Other Woman), it seems almost comically off-key.
The root problem here is the unsympathetic characters. Although the film got stuck in editing limbo for two years, no amount of cutting could rid the project of a diseased premise. Nor is it erotic or violent enough to be an effective critique of human nature. Based on an acclaimed novel by Ron Rash, “Serena” is like a towering tale that’s been fed into a woodchipper.
What “Serena” • Two stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:49 • Content Some violence and sexuality • Where Plaza Frontenac