Pair a three-time Academy Award-nominated actor with an Oscar-winning actress and put them in a hauntingly beautiful period film and it would seem like a recipe for instant success.
Yet “Serena,” the third on-screen pairing between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, takes major missteps that equal or slightly outpace its positive strides, making for an uneven and mundane film as a whole.
Most of the blame, as it were — because conceptually, this is a film that should have fared significantly better — should be laid at the feet of Danish director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle for their mismanagement of the film adaptation of the 2008 Ron Rash novel of the same name.
Set in North Carolina during the 1920s, the movie centers around an up-and-coming logging company owner (Cooper) whose life changes when he falls instantly in love with a beautiful, yet troubled young woman named Serena (Lawrence), who will stop at nothing to keep their love alive.
How and why the couple falls in love is left up to nothing more than a single chance encounter followed up by a sloppily shot encounter on horseback in a field.
Bier and Kyle’s decision to fast-track the romance leaves viewers without any reason to invest in the characters and forces Cooper and Lawrence to rely on their innate chemistry developed in another movie (“Silver Linings Playbook”) under the guidance of a superior director (David O. Russell).
The chemistry between the duo is palpable and is especially noticeable in the sex scenes with “Serena,” but even two incredibly talented actors can’t seem to find a way to make a lackluster script work to their full advantage.
A film about passionate love and the desperation it can create needs the time to explore the romance between the leads, an almost unforgiveable oversight.
“Serena,” which was filmed before “American Hustle” and has sat on the studio’s shelf for over two years, is just missing that little bit of finesse and craftsmanship from the director’s chair necessary to keep the pacing steady and viewers engaged.
Not surprisingly, the movie falters most often when Lawrence and Cooper are not on-screen together. Lawrence, harkening back to a classic era of cinema in both look and demeanor, can hold her own with the limited material, while Cooper — who increasingly approaches leading roles with a character actor’s mentality — has a rougher go-round dealing with a lack of script depth.
Veteran character actors Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones do a decent job in their roles as a mysterious, veteran logger and the town sheriff, respectively.
Though the film deserves better than its eventual branding as “that other Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence movie,” “Serena” needed a different director to fully realize a quality period drama from a terrific concept for a movie.
Despite all its flaws, “Serena” is still the best film to be released so far in 2015, though its pacing issues and early release date will, in all likelihood, bar the film from receiving any accolades come award season.
The film is currently available via video on demand and is expected to receive a limited theater run beginning later this month.