What on paper should be a critical darling has instead become a textbook lesson in just how easily a sure thing can go wrong.
On paper, Oscar bait is easy enough to spot. At least that seems to be the prevailing mindset behind the Susanne Bier-helmed Serena. Take a best-selling period novel, cast two of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and, oh yes, have one of them experience a brutal mental breakdown. Shot way back in 2012 just after Silver Linings Playbook, Bier cast Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as a Depression-era timber magnate couple who face failure in their North Carolina venture. Adapted from Ron Rash’s best-selling novel, words unfortunately do not translate to stellar performances here, and a #34 peak on the best-seller list has been matched by a thoroughly justified critical trouncing of the film. What on paper should be a critical darling has instead become a textbook lesson in just how easily a sure thing can go wrong.
As the newlywed George and Serena Pemberton, Cooper and Lawrence are once again a convincing enough couple. George is wildly ambitious, despite resistance from the locals in the Carolinas. And Serena – the one platinum blonde in the midst of the Carolina lumber boom – complements his ambition with her own strong-willed independence. Their passionate relationship gets off to a rocky start, though, when it it’s revealed that George has already fathered a child with a local girl. Serena claims that his past relationships don’t matter, which turns out to be just another way of saying, “I’m going to kill you for this.”
There is very little to discuss in the way of plot. Susanne Bier’s omnipresent themes of broken family life and human tragedy take center stage, but in a way that is wholly out-of-step with narrative cohesion. She consistently attempts to tell this saga in scenes that run what feel like 30 seconds each. Indeed, far too many scenes are composed in a single shot, which prevents ongoing dialogue between the characters, and severely hampers connection with the audience. The effect is that Serena often plays more like an extended montage than a film. Bier achieves her desired atmosphere but throws all hopes of narrative momentum out the window. And this is all the more unfortunate since she spent a total of 18 months editing the film.
Films this bad always beg the question of their initial intention. The embarrassing amount of time it has taken for Serena to receive any kind of release would suggest that what Bier has offered us is a salvage project, tiny remnants that she took almost two years to carefully piece together into something remotely presentable. That explanation has been fiercely denied, with the film’s backers preferring to cite Bier as a perfectionist instead of admitting the obvious, although she reportedly tried to entice distributors with a choice of no less than three different cuts. To top it off, the film has been shopped around, seemingly forgotten and then shopped around again for distribution, each time with no takers. Serena is only now finding its way onto a very, very limited number of screens via a sister company of the company that originally co-produced it. If the film itself weren’t evidence enough, this tale alone would suggest that no one wanted Serena to see the light of day.
Having never read Rash’s book, it’s hard to say if the faults in the story lie with him or with screenwriter Christopher Kyle. But judging by the lines that Lawrence in particular is required to deliver, Kyle carries plenty of the blame. A cursory reading of the book’s plot reveals a massive change in ending, one that Rash should be fuming about. While Rash’s novel paints a portrait of an unbreakable woman hell-bent on getting her way, the film casts Serena as second fiddle to George’s endeavors. Her relentless willpower is downplayed by limited screen-time and stiff acting on Lawrence’s part. Cooper is the lead, but only by default. Both are talented actors, but through a combination of structural incompetence and poor scripting, neither is allowed the opportunity to show it.
The core flaw in Serena is not just indecision or miscalculation. It’s incompetence. And given the sheer amount of talent involved, there is no excuse. Serena is only Bier’s second American film (she won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar a few films ago, for In A Better World), and the Danish director has been lauded for years for her international breadth and appeal. Her body of work is synonymous with intimate portrayals of families in turmoil. But Serena features none of Bier’s trademark emotional engagement with her subjects. Where Rash’s novel is about unwieldy ambition and cutthroat greed, Bier’s version of it is a subdued and emotionless endeavor with an exasperating, inconsistent tone and a blatant disregard for narrative. The editing – despite would-be perfection – is disgraceful. Between Bier’s pacing and Kyle’s script, there is no coherent story. It would seem every decision made in the making of this film was flawed. To be perfectly honest, Serena is one of the most unwatchable films I’ve ever seen. Its release should at least give Bier the opportunity to take her flack and move on to better ideas.