Magazine | April 6, 2015, Issue

Failure to Launch

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.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Hillary Rules

A recent New York Times report that Hillary Clinton skirted federal-records laws as secretary of state by exclusively using a private e-mail system to conduct official business set off a ...
Politics & Policy

Modern Pollster

A few days before Eric Cantor lost his Virginia congressional district’s GOP nomination last year, his campaign touted the finding of an internal poll. It showed Cantor, the majority leader ...
Politics & Policy

Obama at Selma

President Barack Obama’s speech in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” voting-rights march drew glowing reviews, with some commentators hailing it as the greatest speech of ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Is the Party Over?

Following a night of drunken revelry, Homer reports, Elpenor — one of Odysseus’s unhappy and rapidly dwindling band of brothers — climbs atop the roof of the house where they ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Not-So-Grand Bargain

Many Americans today would like to move beyond the abortion wars. Most of the time, this hopeful suggestion is made either by political liberals (who are frustrated by the pro-life ...
Politics & Policy

Elite Convergence

Conservatives thinking about class and economic inequality will be attracted to Joel Kotkin’s latest book. There’s much to like in it, especially its description of how the leading elements of ...
Politics & Policy

Funky Founder

The hottest ticket in New York right now is a musical at the Public Theater, the downtown off-Broadway venue. The star and creator is Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 35-year-old Nuyorican composer ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ All our missing voters seem to have turned up in Israel. ‐ The general election in Israel was a triumph for Benjamin Netanyahu. His opponents had overtaken him in the ...
Athwart

From Clintonemail.com IT

Herewith a selection of e-mails from the low-level techs who administered clintonemail.com, written to its primary user. August 9, 2009 Hey, Jeremy here. Okay I got clintonemail.com up and running for ...
The Long View

To: hdr22@clintonemail.com

To: hdr22@clintonemail.com From: customersupport@clintonautomatedsystems.com Subj: DO NOT REPLY TO THIS EMAIL Thank you for contacting customer support. We have received your message and are reviewing it. We will contact you within 72 hours ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

CLASSICS Classics pile up on your desk — like unopened mail From the old man’s bank, not blank checks For endless free interpretation, But a mounting high inheritance tax, Assessing and possessing your imagination With truth, ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Consider the Freight Train I am flabbergasted by Kevin A. Hassett’s piece “Off the Rails” (March 9), which includes the statement “Even the worst rail systems in Europe are superior to ...

Most Popular

Immigration

Angela Rye Knows You’re Racist

The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott said that the “rationalist” is hopelessly lost in ideology, captivated by the world of self-contained coherence he has woven from strands of human experience. He concocts a narrative about narratives, a story about stories, and adheres to the “large outline which ... Read More
Immigration

What the Viral Border-Patrol Video Leaves Out

In an attempt to justify Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s absurd comparison of American detention facilities to Holocaust-era concentration camps, many figures within the media have shared a viral video clip of a legal hearing in which a Department of Justice attorney debates a panel of judges as to what constitutes ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Pro-Abortion Nonsense from John Irving

The novelist has put up a lot of easy targets in his New York Times op-ed. I am going to take aim at six of his points, starting with his strongest one. First: Irving asserts that abortion was legal in our country from Puritan times until the 1840s, at least before “quickening.” That’s an overstatement. ... Read More
Film & TV

Murder Mystery: An Old Comedy Genre Gets Polished Up

I  like Adam Sandler, and yet you may share the sense of trepidation I get when I see that another of his movies is out. He made some very funny manboy comedies (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy) followed by some not-so-funny manboy comedies, and when he went dark, in Reign over Me and Funny People, ... Read More