Review: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence get to play stiff and dull in ‘Serena’

Magnolia Pictures

Susanne Bier
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

It can be surreal watching Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence plow through the historical drama “Serena.” They’re actors of great range, but together, at least, they’re synonymous with the films of David O. Russell, in which they’re called on to play spluttering motormouths bopping through chaotic melees. In “Serena,” by contrast, they’re tucked into characters as tight and restricting as their period costumes. Dropped into the Depression-era North Carolina timber business, they must wrestle with declarative dialogue that no actor could make sound natural plus, as the plot drags on, character choices that not even Russell loose cannons would be too crazed to make. It’s not that BCoop and JLaw are defeated; no one would come out of this alive.

Granted, the presence of Lawrence and Cooper make “Serena” seem at least three times as dull as it really is. But it’s still dull. Filmed between “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” it’s a wannabe retro tale of capitalism undone by hubris, only more studied and more muted than usual. The second sleepy take on a sprawling Ron Rash novel of 2015, after “The World Made Straight,” it stars Cooper as George Pemberton, an ambitious timber magnate whose empire crumbles as his relationship with both his wife, Lawrence’s Serena, and his working class workers sours.

This was a project that once beckoned Darren Aronofksy and star Angelina Jolie; now it’s a dour chore from Susanne Bier, a onetime Dogme 95 scrambler (“Open Hearts”) turned Oscar bait hack (“A Better World”). Bier apparently tensed up in the editing room after her two stars become a hot screen couple. That’s obvious from the clumsy start, which is noticeably gored to pieces into sudden narrative leaps and hasty dissolves. George sees Serena astride a horse by minute seven; his second sentence to her is, and we quote, “I think we should be married”; by minute 10 they are married, cueing some PG-13-style lovemaking in an R-rated film. (For the record, Cooper gets a gratuitous topless shot by minute five.)

But it’s clear the footage itself is the problem. Undeniable care went into the production, from the awe-inspiring mountain panoramas to the dingy living spaces, which recall the budding town in Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” And the leads look good: Cooper in his designer suits and, when playing rugged, loose, dirty duds; Lawrence in her wavy platinum blonde bob, every inch the 1930s-style matinee idol.

Alas, the script, by Christopher Kyle, barely gives them — or their talented supporting cast, including Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones and Sean Harris — a chance to do anything beyond the expository. They’re not characters so much as pawns moved about, and joylessly. Eventually everyone starts acting rashly and violently, as though out of boredom; Serena herself lets a blood miscarriage turn her into a makeshift Lady Macbeth. Not that Bier goes full tilt boogie with them; her film remains tasteful, respectable, calm and ultimately lifeless— like a forgotten dream upon waking that, one foggily recalls, may have asked two dynamite actors, and many others besides, to do not very much at all.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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