Jennifer Lawrence, the Hollywood sweetheart of this decade, is stumbling. Not in her performances, let’s be clear—Ms. Jennifer has proven herself time and time again to be a formidable actress—yet her choice in movies has led her down a path of box office disappointments and critical flops. To put the star’s recent struggles in perspective, let’s consider one of her films that’s so bad, and was so quickly buried, barely anyone has seen it. Before there was Red Sparrow, mother! and Passengers, there was Serena.
The little-known 2014 film—which stars Lawrence alongside permanent love interest Bradley Cooper—barely made it to distribution, pulling box office earnings of under half a million dollars worldwide. How could a movie starring two A-listers, one at the peak of their it-girl moment, go so wrong?
In all fairness, Serena starts off just fine. As one might expect of a Depression-era period piece about the North Carolina timber industry—if ever there were such a genre—the film begins with the camera lovingly gliding over wooded, misty mountains. The landscape is beautiful, even breathtakingly so, and has an eeriness and personality to it that gestures towards drama to come. How exciting! Perhaps the opening credits seem like could have been produced on iMovie, but that’s part of the charm, right?
Wrong. This little detail, the off-kilter opening credits, is the first red flag in a cinematic universe of inconsistent accents, stilted dialogue, unsophisticated editing and absurd melodrama that plays out over a 110-minute runtime. Directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, Serena is mystifyingly awful, a misstep so big it could crush a house.
Cooper and Lawrence play George and Serena Pemberton, a newly-wed couple of timber tycoons with big expectations for the future of their empire in the mountains of North Carolina. There’s a lot of shady business being carried out by George’s right-hand man, Buchanan, played by a mumbling, wooden David Dencik, and his betrayal throws a wrench into the couples’ plans (there’s talk of Brazil, but we never get to leave the state). Things really, really start to unravel when Serena discovers that she can’t bear children and that George has had an illegitimate child with a local woman. Melodramatic disaster ensues.
Although Bier has earned international recognition for Danish-language films like Brothers and In A Better World, as well as her BBC miniseries The Night Manager, she has never found success in the American film industry, and Serena is an unfortunate testament to her failings. The blame shouldn’t all be heaped onto her direction, however. A film this bad has to be a team effort. To name names, screenwriter Christopher Kyle is largely at fault for the convoluted and clunky script, adapted from the 2008 novel by Ron Rash, with such memorable lines as “I have your baby inside me,” delivered flatly by an unsmiling Lawrence.
From bad CGI and editing to laughable dialogue, there are a seemingly infinite number of things wrong with Serena. Entire volumes could, and should, be written on each of its little flaws and absurdities and bound in fine, mahogany-toned leather. That being said, one of the most frustrating issues at the heart of the movie is the rapid and frankly inexplicable shift of the title character’s personality over the course of its runtime. When she moves east and begins her life in the North Carolina timber business, Serena is competent and assertive, even to her beloved husband. “They need to know it was a woman who tamed the eagle,” she tells him—without even the slightest hint of smile—upon the arrival of the imported bird used to kill rattlesnakes, per her suggestion. Despite her big shows of strength and acumen in the business, Serena is eventually gripped by such insecurity that she hires someone to murder a child. What could possibly be her motivation?
Perhaps the film thinks her tragic past is enough to justify this mind-boggling shift. Serena’s entire family died in a fire and she did nothing to save them because she was 12 years old and scared, a story that comes to light the moment she’s introduced in an awkward, gauzy slo-mo sequence on horseback. She’s then oh-so subtly described as “beautiful…but wounded,” and as we all know, no woman can be secure in both her occupational skills and relationships, especially one as “wounded” as Serena.
Or perhaps the movie is suggesting that this change—from an exacting, proto-feminist wife and businesswoman to a crazed and melodramatic femme fatale—is the immediate result of Serena’s miscarriage and deep jealousy of Rachel, the mother of George’s illegitimate son. She thrashes and sobs, pleads with her husband and threatens the life of his child, all because she…can’t have her own? This logic relies on a tired cliché and yet is still wildly inconsistent. Is she strong and assertive, or insecure and manipulative? If your characterization is going to be rife with misogyny, at least pick a side and stick with it.
In another layer of absurdity, Serena includes enough CGI wildlife roaming around its Carolinian forests to fill an ark. A bear? Sure. An eagle? Why not? And you can bet that when George mentions the mountains’ lack of panthers at the outset of the film, his comment will come back to bite him eventually. We could suppose that all these animals are meant to fit into some heavy-handedly poetic narrative about the cruelty of nature and the untamable wilderness of our desires, but they ultimately read as the most conveniently placed of plot devices. Nothing moves the story along quite like a surprise bear.
Jennifer Lawrence, always the entertainer, embraces every inch of the script in its confusing, laughable glory. She performs the whiplash behaviors of Serena to their fullest and most ridiculous, not bringing much nuance to the drama but not detracting from the source material, either. There comes a moment where Lawrence even brings an ounce of humanity to Serena, while she’s quietly sobbing in her hospital bed after her miscarriage. She deserves some recognition for that feat alone.
Lawrence and Bradley Cooper don’t demonstrate the chemistry that is writ large across Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but it’s hard to fault them for it. Between clunky dialogue, domestic violence and five short, poorly-filmed sex scenes, there is more in Serena to discourage any semblance of genuine romance than encourage it. On his own, Cooper can’t maintain a steady accent, but is otherwise passable with his blue-eyed stare and three-piece suits.
On the topic of suits, the costuming by Signe Sejlund is rather beautifully done, and the makeup has a realism and texture to it that is invisible in some of the more glamorous period pieces you could find in theaters. Unfortunately, it’s not much more than lipstick on a pig.
Don’t cry for Serena. Despite Lawrence’s recent stumbles, almost everyone involved on both sides of the camera has made it out alive, and many have even flourished since those dark days of post-production. If anything, have a good laugh. After all that tragedy, someone ought to enjoy themself.