Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: "Serena"

Director: Susanne Bier
Runtime: 109 minutes

Even the brightest super-star duos stumble once and a while. That's exactly the case with Susanne Bier's long-delayed Serena, which strands A-listers/frequent co-stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in a jumbled, albeit sincerely made, attempt at old-school melodrama. Even fans of the two leads would be advised to steer clear of Bier's latest attempt to find success outside of her native Denmark. 

What's instantly clear about Serena is that, despite the strong credentials, just about everything rings hollow. Characters are established via stray lines of dialogue rather than meaningful conversations or actions, and the actors trudge through their material while sounding like they've never spoken a word of English until now. Set in Depression-era North Carolina, Serena is a romance and a tragedy set among the state's struggling timber industry. George Pemberton (Cooper) is doing his best to grow his business into an empire, while his new wife Serena (Lawrence) is coping with her inability to produce an heir. It's a set-up rich with dramatic potential, with Serena's quest for a male heir instantly calling to mind the not-so-merry wives of Henry VIII. Unfortunately, the beautifully shot trees are the least wooden subjects on display.

Cooper and Lawrence have proven themselves as talented, charismatic performers, but in Serena they are distressingly out of sync with their material and each other. George's first line of dialogue to Serena is an out-of-the-blue marriage proposal, and it's all downhill from there. For a while, Serena is more focused on George's battle against officials who want to stop his deforestation efforts to create a national park. Despite the grim faces and appropriately dusty period attire, the plot thread never takes hold. Parks and Recreation traversed similar narrative ground with greater heft, even with Leslie Knope's undeterred, sunny optimism. So, after about 45 minutes and one murder, Christopher Kyle's script (based on Ron Rash's novel) gets cold feet and shifts to the pregnancy drama. 

The traumas and tragedies that follow over the remaining hour are a mish-mash of cliches that aren't done any favors by Bier's handling of the tone, which switches between disinterested and dour at the tip of George's wide-brimmed hat. Cooper is stuck trying to pull off an unconvincing accent, while Lawrence conveys the poise required for the role while still being distractingly underage. As with American Hustle, there are pieces of a solid performance in Lawrence's work, but they require a level of maturity that can only come with time. Sometimes, screen presence just isn't enough.

As the dueling story lines awkwardly slug it out for dominance, Serena unravels at a tedious pace. Photography, costumes, and sets all hit their marks, capturing the period and setting without creating false glamor. But with an unwieldy plot barely propped up by the wet blanket chemistry of the leads, even the visuals start to seem phony by the end. Given the rumored re-shoots and re-edits of the film, perhaps there's a version of Serena that actually passes muster as a noble failure, or even a minor success. Yet, in it's current form, the romance lacks heat, and the tragedy lacks even an ounce of genuine pathos. Some movies, no matter how much sense they make on paper, just never find the spark required to create compelling drama. Here's hoping the next Cooper/Lawrence vehicle (David O. Russell's Joy, due by year's end) gets these two A-listers back on the right track.

Grade: D

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