While everyone is looking forward to Joy this upcoming Fall, the first half of 2015 hasn't been kind to its central cast and director. Along with David O. Russell's notoriously abandoned Accidental Love, actors Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have their own shelved project that dates back before their breakout hit Silver Linings Playbook. One could only speculate as to why it was shelved for three years, not even receiving a pity release to bank off of its stars. Still, with Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier, why is the film almost unmarketable? For those expecting the worst, you won't get it. However, it definitely isn't a flawed masterpiece either. It is simply an often misguided love story that goes terribly wrong.
The story takes place in 1929 in North Carolina and follows lumber company giant Pemberton (Cooper) as he romances the independent Serena (Lawrence). The two work almost as partners with Serena establishing herself quickly as a force of power. She is strong, confident woman that would make for a great protagonist alongside the more conventional nature of the film. For the first half, the film's biggest accusation is that it is boring and filled with beauty b-roll footage of forests. For the back half, the love sours, tragedy strikes consistently, and the confident woman gets reduced to a damsel in distress; defined by the man who she once worked alongside.
At its core, there is something to get out of this story. However, it ends up being something less than pleasant. For starters, the editing is manic and camera shots often linger for a few beats too many. For as beautiful as the film is from a production standpoint, its story undermines its potential. The aforementioned deceit of characters ruins any coherence. While Cooper and Lawrence get decent performances, there is nothing exceptional enough to elevate the material above tepid. While there's a chance that maybe this film's fault is in what scenes were edited out, it doesn't excuse how nonsensical some moments feel and how rapidly the finale digresses into tragedy.
It is a puzzling film because Bier has plenty to offer. She was the first to bring Cooper and Lawrence together; giving them steamy love scenes and a decent wardrobe to act in. For those expecting early cues of the magic that Russell would later bring to them, it isn't entirely there. It is reflective of performers who are a little unsure of their rich, mature, and dark subject matter. Lawrence is especially self-effacing as she is forced to react to various personal tragedies as the camera lingers on her. It doesn't help that the lingering is too ingrained into every shot to give it any emphasis. It is by no means a terrible performance, but just not one that sparks encouragement. It would be interesting to have judged this from a pre-Silver Linings Playbook angle, knowing very well what their two Oscar nominations each would give. But unfortunately, we have to look at the younger and more inexperienced out of context, which may create more of a disservice.
Serena is likely to remain a notorious film not because it was shelved for a few years. It is the film that sunk the 2929 production studio and hasn't been the biggest box office success then. Even hardcore fans eagerly awaiting Lawrence's latest The Hunger Games movie might not even know this exists. It feels like it was tossed under the rug through video on demand and maybe existing to fool people looking for some entertainment on Netflix. To put it bluntly, it is not a great movie. It was shelved for a reason. Even then, one can watch and piece together a better movie that maybe would've been worthwhile.
To an extent, Serena is a largely misguided movie that will cause many to question it. A film starring Cooper and Lawrence shouldn't be this bad, can it? Even as someone who disliked Silver Linings Playbook, I can appreciate the chemistry that they brought to the movie. A good actor is able to elevate their source material and at least make something memorable. Even if the movie around them is bad, they can make you care enough about their motives. Serena is not one of them and if you leave wondering "What happened?," it is a loaded question. What happened to make the movie so tepid? What happened to make the chemistry so stilted? What happened afterwards? Thankfully, much like Russell after Accidental Love, a lot of good things happened. It's just that Serena will always remain more puzzling than good.