“Cold Mountain,” meet “Heaven’s Gate.”
In one of the many unintentionally goofy moments in “Serena,” the titular character (played by Jennifer Lawrence) imports an eagle to the Smoky Mountains, with the purpose of training the majestic creature to pick off the poisonous snakes that have been biting the local lumber workers working for the company she runs with her husband, George (Bradley Cooper).
They take the eagle into a barn. George suggests Serena eat or drink something. Serena says she won’t eat or drink until the eagle eats or drinks. Then she tells George and his men to leave her alone with the bird.
“I want them to know it was a woman who tamed the eagle,” she says.
Fresh off the triumph of “Silver Linings Playbook,” Cooper and Lawrence filmed “Serena” in 2012. Based on a bestselling novel and directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who had recently won the Academy Award for best foreign language film (“In a Better World”), “Serena” looked to have the ingredients of a prestige film — but it languished in limbo for more than a year and a half, and was made available on video on demand before this weekend’s theatrical release.
In other words, a lot of people realized they had an epic clunker on their hands.
At first I thought Cooper was going for an Australian accent, but I think George Pemberton is from Boston. In any case, after a string of fine performances Cooper is utterly unbelievable as a ruthless, Depression-era timber baron who has little regard for his men, is cooking the books and won’t stop short of murder if it means saving his business.
His new bride Serena, on the other hand, is clearly bonkers. Legend has it the 12-year-old Serena abandoned her younger siblings when their house caught fire, leaving them all to die. Serena has Jean Harlow movie star hair and she strikes a jaunty pose while riding her trusty horse through the mountains, but when she speaks, she gets a kind of Glenn-Close-in-“Fatal Attraction” look in her eyes. Ah, but poor, clueless George thinks she’s a “real pistol,” and he ignores the warnings of his longtime business partner Buchanan (David Dencik), among others.
Buchanan, by the way, is obviously in love with George. Meanwhile, a local brute named Galloway (Rhys Ifans) credits Serena with saving his life after his hand is chopped off. Galloway says there was a prophecy about such a thing happening when he was a baby (what a childhood!), and that means he’s now devoted for life to Serena, and he will do anything for her, including acts of … MURDER.
Cooper never once conveys a man of his era. He looks like he just stepped off a GQ photo shoot. Lawrence, obviously a talented actress, is monumentally bad here. There’s no nuance to her performance as Serena, no gradual descent for the character. She’s a conniving, criminal nutball, and Lawrence overplays her as if she’s a villainess in a mediocre silent film.
Another fine actor, Toby Jones, is comically miscast as the local sheriff. Jones was great as Truman Capote. Playing a North Carolina lawman in rough-and-tumble times, he doesn’t look like he could solve a crossword puzzle or have the strength to detain a kid for skipping school.
Once the sheriff realizes some major crimes have been committed, he engages in some ridiculous maneuvering to protect the next intended victim, Ana Ularu’s Rachel, mother to George’s son.
But the sheriff’s a genius compared to Rachel.
At one point Rachel spots the man who intends to kill her. It’s broad daylight. The streets are bustling with local townsfolk. All Rachel has to do is scream, “That man is trying to kill me!” Instead, she runs away from all the people and into a secluded spot, the better for him to stalk her.
Come on Rachel. Think.