When Susanne Bier’s Serena began filming in March 2012, its stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence had just completed work on David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and it would be a full year before they reunited with Russell in March 2013 for American Hustle. In other words, it was a film sandwiched between two projects that netted both actors Oscar nominations (and, in the case of Lawrence, a Best Actress win for Silver Linings). Given the success of their other two collaborations, as well as the fact that Bier also owns a Best Foreign Film Oscar (for 2011’s In a Better World), and that her period drama was based on a 2008 best-selling novel by Ron Rash, her latest—about a logging bigwig (Cooper) whose personal and professional life is complicated by his marriage to a tough-as-tree-bark backwoods beauty (Lawrence)—seemed to hold immense potential for further accolades and acclaim.
And yet Serena, which finally gets a limited theatrical release this Friday after having already debuted on VOD, is a disaster.
How could things have gone so wrong for this film, which was once going to be made by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) with Angelina Jolie, and whose eventual leads just headlined the biggest (Cooper’s American Sniper) and second-biggest (Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) films of 2014? The blunt answer is that the material is an unmitigated mess. Written with one clunky line of dialogue after another by Christopher Kyle, Bier’s film focuses on Cooper’s George Pemberton, who in the 1929 Smoky Mountains of North Carolina is running a timber operation that’s opposed by local government killjoys (namely, Toby Jones’s Sheriff McDowell) who want the land protected as a national forest. Pemberton’s endeavor is also in jeopardy because the man has, financially, stretched himself dangerously thin. Oh, and he’s also knocked up a local woman but wants nothing to do with her—instead, upon first laying eyes on Lawrence’s Serena, who was orphaned after her logging-magnate parents died in a fiery blaze, Pemberton tells her he’s going to marry her, and then promptly follows through on that presumptuous claim.
Bier, who took 18 long months to complete her final cut, relays their courtship by depicting them having sex and then intercutting to footage of them spending time together—an awkward, rushed editorial device that never adequately conveys the love that’s supposedly brought them together. Things get far worse once they’re back at Pemberton’s operation, where one of his scruffy workers (Rhys Ifans) is apparently endowed with some sort of supernatural “sight,” and where Pemberton’s right-hand man (David Dencik) is soon betraying his boss. Worse still, Serena—desperate to give her husband an heir—miscarries their baby, thus igniting her jealousy over Pemberton’s sudden, baffling feelings for his bastard child. Severed limbs and foolish murder soon follow, with Bier pulling off the not-inconsiderable feat of making every plot twist less logical than the last. By the time it reaches its fiery conclusion—involving Pemberton learning that maybe he shouldn’t have been so eager to hunt a mythical panther out in the forest (?!)—the film has delivered heaps of laughable melodrama minus any compelling lucidity.
If there’s a direction to point the finger for such problems, it’s certainly toward Bier and Kyle. Serena’s raft of jarring scene-transition edits come across as feeble attempts to mask the wholesale artificiality of its scenes’ drama. Its visual blocking and staging are equally ungainly, and its score is of a mind-numbingly twangy variety. Moreover, its story is a heap of frontier clichés sans any meaningful subtext or thematic substance, so that the film is, ultimately, about nothing, other than two relatively selfish, self-interested jerks who feel entitled to wealth and happiness—even at the expense of others—and wind up destroying each other, and themselves, because of it.
The fact that Serena is a debacle isn’t, in and of itself, particularly newsworthy—similar fiascos reach screens every week. And it’s hardly the first time that a “can’t miss” onscreen couple has badly missed once the cameras rolled. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez temporarily turned themselves into punchlines with 2003’s Gigli. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman shared only moderate chemistry in Far and Away, and again in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (though their chilly rapport was part of Kubrick’s point, whether audiences understood that or not). And Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger didn’t ignite a single spark—but certainly elicited their fair share of derision—when they tried to transfer their romance to the screen in 1994’s remake of The Getaway.
Of course, those examples involve actors who were couples in real life, something that isn’t the case with Serena. Nonetheless, what really sets Bier’s film apart are its headliners’ top-of-their-game pedigrees—which were largely forged together. Cooper and Lawrence’s dysfunctional amour is the bedrock foundation upon which Silver Linings Playbook thrives, and though they share little screen time in American Hustle, their manic energy and big, bold, brash performances are a large part of what makes that David O. Russell film hum with Scorsese-ish verve. In both instances, they’re assured about who their characters are and what’s driving them forward, fully invested in their neuroses, ambitions and desires, and completely in sync with each other and those around them.
The opposite is true of Serena. And as such, the failure of Bier’s film speaks to issues of stardom, chemistry, and the relative ability of great actors to compensate for their projects’ shortcomings. Both Cooper and Lawrence do their best to give committed performances, and there are moments when their kindred steely-eyed glares come close to expressing Pemberton and Serena’s likeminded ruthless determination. No matter how fully they dive into their roles, however, both seem ill at ease throughout, and even in moments of supposed romantic and sexual intimacy, they resemble people operating on slightly different, clashing wavelengths. Both strive to give big movie star performances, and yet they prove hopelessly small in Serena, thanks to characters that haven’t been thought out enough to resonate as anything more than vague caricatures.
Considering how well Cooper and Lawrence meshed in Silver Linings Playbook, Serena’s inert central dynamic underlines the fact that chemistry is as much a byproduct of directorial stewardship as it is of actors’ natural chemistry. Furthermore, it highlights how stardom—and award-worthy praise—can only be achieved through a careful balance between a performer’s skill, his or her collaborators’ talents, and the relative merit of the material at hand. When the latter two elements falter, no amount of megawatt A-list charm and irresistible interpersonal harmony can help stave off catastrophe.
Though even more than carefully vetting future scripts on which to collaborate, the underlying lesson of Serena for Cooper and Lawrence may simply be: Stick with David O. Russell.