Film Review: Serena

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Serena Plot Summary:

When George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) returns to his Appalachian logging empire with his frigid new wife Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), their marital bliss is threatened when a government plan to have their land declared a national park threatens to ruin their plans. Things get worse when a young woman named Rachel (Ana Ularu) bears George’s child and Serena grows jealous.

Serena has had a long road to the screen. Filmed right after Lawrence and Cooper’s first collaboration, Silver Linings Playbook, director Susanne Bier then spent years meticulously editing it. Now, it finally hits theaters and VOD and it turns out it wasn’t really worth the wait.

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While they scarcely shared the screen in American Hustle, Silver Linings worked based largely on Lawrence and Cooper’s chemistry. Despite their 15-year age difference, they were evenly matched; if anything Cooper had to fight to keep up. Their characters’ connection was fun, sexy and slightly adversarial. This time around, the sexuality is more carnal and their characters’ conflicts threaten to kill both. Unfortunately, neither actor seems up to the task.

After seeing Cooper’s commanding turn in American Sniper last year, his performance as George seems like the nascent version. He doesn’t know how to wield his physical presence and he hasn’t quite worked out how to make his character’s deep-seated confidence believable. In an early scene where George chases down Serena on horseback, it’s still Lawrence who commands attention. Though that’s not to say Lawrence is as strong as she is in Silver Linings or even the Hunger Games series. It’s difficult to determine exactly what’s doesn’t work about her performance. Part of it is that her energy seems so modern. Stunning as she looks in period attire, she doesn’t fit into the era. Moreover, she seems to be searching to find the right balance of cruelty, vulnerability and sex appeal and the characterization swings from one extreme to another. Some of that probably could have been resolved with more focused direction from Bier, but much of the blame belongs to the script.

Ron Rash’s novel is more like Gone Girl set in Depression-era Appalachia. However, in his tale, both husband and wife are ruthless opportunists. What attracts Pemberton to Serena is that he sees his match: a woman willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. While his illegitimate child causes Pemberton to question their relationship, his love for Serena eventually wins out—not that she’s so easy to forgive. Scriptwriter Christopher Kyle (coincidentally, not the man of the same name Cooper played in Sniper) removes all that unlikable human complexity, reduces the ‘other woman’ Rachel (Ularu) to a damsel in distress and turns Serena–like so many femme fatales before her–into a representation of cruel female otherness that men fear and don’t understand.

It’s a disappointing outcome, especially because the movie gives us glimpses of the source material’s complexity. Take Lawrence and Cooper’s best scene, where Pemberton nearly strangles Serena after learning she’s trying to hurt Rachel and his son. It’s intense and frightening, but also utterly fascinating. For a moment, we see how much their connection depends on possession and control and how oddly suited they are. But rather than explore that dynamic, it gets swept aside for an action sequence and a redemption arc. Lawrence and Cooper deserved better.

Rating: 5/10


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By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over every detail of America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture and celebrity obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to. You can find her risking her life by reading comic books while walking down the crowded streets of New York City, having inappropriate emotional reactions at her iPad screen while riding the subway or occasionally letting her love of a band convince her to stand for hours on end in one of the city’s many purgatorial concert spaces. You can follow her on Twitter to read her insightful social commentary or more likely complain about how cold it is at @MarisaCarpico.
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By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.