What were Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence thinking? Seriously?
The two immensely talented actors had already blazed and crazed and ballroom-danced together in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle when off they go to the Smoky Mountains for Serena, a Depression-era drama about timber barons - adapted from the PEN/Faulkner-nominated novel by Ron Rash, with Oscar-winning Danish director Susanne Bier calling the shots.
So far, so good.
But once in costume as George Pemberton, lumber magnate, and Serena Shaw, a Jean Harlow-haired dame who grew up on a timber camp out West, did Cooper and Lawrence know how laughable this tale of love, greed, and clear-cutting was? They must have. But they went ahead anyway, wholly committed. Brave souls!
From the couple's first meet (on horseback, he galloping after the equestrienne he had first spotted bobbing slo-mo on her white steed) to the doomed finale, Serena is one long eye-roll of calamities and corn.
The titular heroine, just married to George, detrains in the Carolina lumber town and starts bossing the crews around. She takes an ax to one tall trunk to show how to cut it right. She orders an eagle sent in - and trains it herself - to save the men from the rattlesnakes infesting the woods. Her proud husband calls her "a pistol," strong and assured, but wounded somehow - literally and figuratively. A scar mars the alabaster skin of her back.
Cooper tries out a Boston accent, a pair of snappy suspenders, and a rifle, which he takes into the woods in search of an elusive mountain cat. He run things with his "right-hand man," Buchanan (David Dencik), who doesn't welcome the arrival of the new missus. Servant girl Rachel (Ana Ularu) doesn't welcome her, either. Rachel had been bringing Pemberton his breakfasts, staying long enough to become pregnant with his child.
"It doesn't matter," Serena tells George when she sees the look he throws the servant girl - and the history in their eyes. "Our love began the day we met. Nothing that happened before even exists."
Ha! See how that works out for you, Serena, as the business setbacks and betrayals and tragic accidents unfurl like the clouds rolling in over the mountaintops.
Is there a panther in them thar woods?
George, obsessed, asks the mysterious Gallaway (Rhys Ifans) if the majestic predator still roams the Smokies. "Panthers eat the heart first," the tracker tells George. If one is out there, it's "likely touched by the devil, and will end up hunting you."
Serena *1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Susanne Bier. With Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, David Dencik, Ana Ularu, Toby Jones. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, sex, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz East.EndText