The previous two collaborations of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence seemed to go so well. Silver Linings, Playbook and American Hustle, however, excelled not only because of the strength and chemistry of these two performers but because of the solid script, direction and supporting cast – three elements which are sorely missing from Serena. Set in depression-era Carolina, Serena follows newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton, as they struggle to keep a firm grasp on their timber empire. In concept, it may play out like a classic love story set against the stunning rural backdrop of 30s America. In execution, it just doesn’t quite get there.
I’ll be honest; I have no idea what Serena is actually trying to achieve. The plot attempts to weave the story of two characters deeply in love with a political subplot about National Parks and timber without effectively making the audience care about either. Of course, it’s entirely possible for a movie to make me interested in something I’d have no interest in – There Will Be Blood and its tale of the Southern Californian oil boom is but one stellar example. However, Serena has a plot about something I would not care about and makes me care even less.
The key difference between these two films is the characters. Serena, of course, isn’t centrally about the timber industry, it’s about the characters within it. On a surface level, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper don’t do a terrible job. Both are fine actors who have previously managed to show some terrific performances (Bradley Cooper’s best: a violent raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy). They are let down however by an incredibly mediocre script. Christopher Kyle (most notable for writing the excruciatingly bloated Alexander) has constructed a screenplay that feels plodding and disjointed, giving the supporting characters no proper development and the main duo nothing believable. Whilst the direction may effectively capture the appearance of the Carolina landscape, it fails to capture the emotional depth of the characters – a fairly crucial error within a character drama.
None of this is helped by the pacing of the film. Whilst it’s understandable that a movie of this type should be slow-moving and reflective, it ultimately just leads to frustration, leaving me staring in utter confusion at the dullness of a couple of scenes, without any care or investment in the characters or plot. When any scene does quicken the pace or even insert some moments of action it just ends up being laughable.
Another problem with the film is the editing. Although it was shot from March to May 2012, it only found a cinematic release in the UK in October 2014. There were no production issues or reshoots, just an 18 month process to complete the film, yet it feels like it was done in 18 days. Serena seems like a film that someone left for about a year, then stumbled across the uncompleted footage and tried to piece it back together having little memory of the film when it was being made. Montages are forced and awkward. The films seems to cover most of the plot in the first half, before remembering Jennifer Lawrence’s character needs to do something else in the second half and plunges the movie into nonsensical melodrama. The score is wholly unremarkable, except for the fact that it sounds as if it were stock music found on someone’s computer and has been looped continuously over every scene.
All of this said, the central disappointment with Serena is that as a bad movie it is very unremarkable. Fans of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence will not be too scarred by the mediocrity of their latest project, mainly because most won’t even see it. Whilst it stirred up some interest back in 2013 when people were anticipating its release, the film’s fading into the background for many months at least softens the blow that no-one should really have cared about it in the first place.
Serena will be released on DVD across the UK on 23rd February 2015.