One of the first R-rated movies I saw in a theater was Legends of the Fall, a big slice of epic ham that, coming hard on the heels of Interview with the Vampire and A River Runs Through It, helped a young Brad Pitt grab the crown of Sexiest Movie Star Alive. I was too young to have any real taste, so I probably enjoyed it — and really, it was enjoyable, even if it was also overripe and ridiculous. It was trying to be larger than life, and it sometimes succeeded, because it had Pitt’s magnetism to work with: He was playing a Montana rancher’s scion, named Tristan, who wrestled bears, seduced his sister-in-law, wore war paint while hunting Germans through World War I trenches, and galloped in slow motion across big-sky country with Fabio hair falling around his shoulders. And you know, he almost sold it.
I thought a lot about Legends of the Fall while watching Serena, a strange curiosity of a movie that’s airing on-demand and washing into a few theaters soon. That limited-release fate is a big part of what’s curious about it, since Serena features two of the world’s biggest movie stars, both of them in the midst of charmed professional runs that include two successful prior collaborations.
The stars in question are Bradley Cooper (whose American Sniper just became the highest-grossing movie released in 2014) and Jennifer Lawrence, the Mockingjay herself. They’re playing period characters this time — he’s George Pemberton, a timber baron in Depression-era North Carolina, and she’s the titular mystery woman he takes as his wife. So far, so good: We know from Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle that the two have chemistry; we know from Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s original star-making role, that she can handle backwoods melodrama; we know from Sniper, among other movies, that Cooper can disappear into a part. The source material, a 2008 novel by Ron Rash, has a good reputation, and it’s a gothic melodrama, a genre that tends to work well in transition from print to screen. At a budget in the low tens of millions, it’s easy to see why the movie exists, and easy to imagine how it could have had a different commercial fate.
So what went wrong? Is this yet another sign of the much-prophesied Death of the Movie Star? To some extent, yes: A decade or two ago, a movie with leads this famous would have had some kind of wide release.
That said, it might also be a case study in the perils of not-quite-stardom, since neither Cooper nor Lawrence was quite as famous back when Serena started filming — it was shot in 2012, the year Silver Linings took them both up a level, and it’s been hanging around and getting recut ever since. Celebrity is no protection against misfires, but, at the very least, had the stars been A-listers during filming, there’s a chance that someone with money or creative control (but I repeat myself) might have taken a harder look at the script or hired a different director when the first dailies started showing up.
The director, Susanne Bier, seems to have wanted to make a somber, self-serious historical drama, poised somewhere in the cultural space between McCabe and Mrs. Miller and There Will Be Blood. That’s what the movie’s pace and atmosphere suggest, along with its elliptical (sometimes inaudible) dialogue and the relative restraint with which the stars approach their roles.
The problem is that Bier has a story that was going to work — absent extensive revisions, I suppose — only if she pushed the throttle and went for straight-up scenery-chewing melodrama. There’s more than enough material for that here: lust and murder and corruption, maimings, bloody miscarriages, illegitimate children, a snake-killing eagle, and some exciting man-versus-panther action way up in the Carolina woods. Unfortunately, Serena is filmed and played as if its events were happening in some kind of semi-normal reality. But the events, and the choices and motivations behind them, would make sense only if they were happening on the same planet as, well, Legends of the Fall.
What that movie understood, and what Serena does not, is that you can’t go only partway over the top, and there’s no point having a movie star in your melodrama if you won’t exploit him to the hilt. Or, in this case, her: We know from American Hustle that Lawrence can go full throttle when the situation calls for it, and here it really did.
Her Serena needed to be absolutely larger than life, a screen-dominating image of the sociopathic feminine, the kind of crazed/ruthless/alluring figure that would inspire a thousand think-pieces about “what this movie means for feminism.” Instead she’s a blur, a jumble of contradictions, underplaying and keeping her passions mostly on a leash.
Unleashing her wouldn’t have made Serena great, but it would have made it watchable, interesting, fun. But she’s tame, the movie’s dull, and it deserves its fate.