Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's coronation as Gen Y's Bogie and Bacall runs into a spectacular snafu in the North Carolina-set feature SERENA, based on Ron Rash's novel. The film ventured through development hell to video-on-demand before its muted theatrical release.
George Pemberton (Cooper) watches Serena Shaw (Lawrence) ride equestrian for mere minutes before the timber magnate and the "beautiful yet wounded" maiden embark on a montage of courtship and matrimony. Serena joins George at his Depression-era logging facility, situated in the Smoky Mountains (by way of a tax-friendly Czech Republic shooting locale).
George must ward off a group of eco-aggressive natives—led, for some reason, by the local sheriff (Toby Jones)—who want the area's virgin forest preserved as a national park. Meanwhile, Serena wins over the male-dominated camp by importing an eagle to hunt deadly rattlesnakes and demonstrating that you can get more wood per tree by cutting lower (you don't say ...).
It's all placid and pedestrian until a clash between George and his duplicitous partner (David Dencik) ends with a startling turn of character that has no motivation and upends the plotline. Then, when Serena discovers George's furtive desire to play dad to his illegitimate son with a local lass, the entire spectacle morphs into some sylvan Southern Gothic.
The film's aspirations (intended and otherwise) are transparent: It's MacBeth meets There Will Be Blood with a dash of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, all set atop Cold Mountain. Danish director Susanne Bier, once part of the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, fashions them into misbegotten mumble-bore. The dialogue is replete with six-word sentences that sound as if they originated on college-rule paper. Johan Söderqvist's treacly score is backwoods Muzak. And the jarring editing—the result of 18 months of post-production after filming finished in May 2012—lurches from one miswritten scene to another, linked by strained narrative sinew.
Serena fails most demonstrably with its rudderless characterizations. George is like a lumberman version of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, but Cooper can't (or won't) embrace the requisite moral complexity and depravity, at least none that's believable.
And then there's Serena, who veers from Eva Perón to Lady MacBeth, Florence Nightingale to Lizzie Borden. The ham-fisted climax includes a series of stunningly silly events, capped by two of the most poorly framed fight scenes you'll ever see. Only one involves man versus cat.
With its star wattage, local setting, troubled production and excruciating execution, Serena uncomfortably recalls Main Street, the 2010 flameout filmed in Durham. If a movie flops and no one sees it, did it really exist? Cooper and Lawrence better hope not.