If you produced a movie featuring the two hottest movie stars in the world, with an Oscar-winning director and a script based on a beloved best-selling novel, you might assume you’d end up with a massive hit, right? Or at least a movie that everyone was scrambling to get a piece of? But what if that didn’t happen — and you ended up with pretty much the opposite of that? What if you ended up with Serena?
Serena stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, whom you may remember from such little-seen collaborations as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, films for which he earned a total of two Oscar nominations and she earned an Oscar nomination and an Oscar win. Serena is directed by Susanne Bier, whose previous film, In a Better World, won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar in 2011, both for Best Foreign Language Film. Serena’s script is based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Ron Rash, which was a New York Times best-seller and earned great reviews. Yet despite this impressive assemblage of talent, there is a good chance that you’ve never even heard of Serena, which, by the way, you could be watching on VOD right now. That’s right — a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, released in 2015, went, in that antiquated parlance, straight to video.
Spoiler: Serena is not an interesting or particularly enjoyable movie, and I cannot in good conscience recommend that you watch it. But it is a useful object lesson in moviemaking in the 21st century — and an improbable tale of how something can go terribly wrong even when everything seems to be going wonderfully right. Set during the Depression in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Serena is the tale of an ambitious timber baron named George Pemberton (Cooper), his troubled and ruthless rise to power, and his even more troubled and ruthless marriage to a difficult and remarkable woman named Serena (Lawrence), who emerges as a kind of backwoods Lady Macbeth. You can easily imagine the elevator pitch: It’s Winter’s Bone meets There Will Be Blood, with a dash of Cold Mountain and meaty dramatic roles for both leads. Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t green-light that?
The film was initially budgeted at a not-inconsiderable $25 to $30 million, so Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment teamed with Studiocanal to co-finance the project — in exactly the kind of arrangement that’s increasingly responsible for mid-level films. (See, for example, action films like Taken or prestige co-productions like The Imitation Game.) To take advantage of tax incentives, the film was shot in the Czech Republic, which passes here for North Carolina, barely. Darren Aronofsky was initially attached to direct and Angelina Jolie was supposed to star, but both eventually fell out, so the producers tapped Bier as their new director and Jennifer Lawrence as their new star.
That latter choice would turn out to be incredibly fortuitous, timing-wise. 2012 was a great year for Lawrence, who starred in both The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook — basically, it was the year she went from Jennifer Lawrence, promising ingénue and surprise Oscar-nominee for Winter’s Bone, to Jennifer Lawrence, Heir Apparent to the Kingdom of Hollywood. 2012, not coincidentally, was also a great year for Cooper, not least because of Silver Linings Playbook, which freed him from his association with expertly executed douchebag roles (The Hangover, The A-Team) and set him on the path to becoming Hollywood’s leading man of choice — a position he significantly solidified this year with American Sniper. So it must have seemed like a great stroke of good fortune when Lawrence convinced Cooper to join her, as Serena’s male lead. If you could travel back in time and tell the film’s producers that their two leads were about to amass four Oscar nominations, billions in box-office receipts, and countless headlines between them, those producers no doubt would have danced a jig.
No one’s jigging now. Both Cooper and Lawrence are good in Serena and are, for the most part, blameless for its deficiencies. The movie itself, however, is a mess — not a Heaven’s Gate level of messiness, but a brand of messiness that’s even more intriguing by being less obviously messy. After wrapping the filming in 2012, Bier took 18 more months in post-production to complete a cut of the film. One Hollywood Reporter source suggested this delay was due in part to her feeling tremendous pressure in light of the critical success of Silver Linings Playbook, which Serena would be following up — or, at least, that was the plan. Instead, the movie languished, then went notoriously AWOL. It didn’t hit the festival circuit until late 2014, premiering with a conspicuous lack of excitement at the London Film Festival. The film subsequently bombed in the U.K. It’s been met with generally tepid reviews everywhere — Variety’s Guy Lodge memorably wrote that it “boasts neither a narrative impetus nor a perceptible objective” — and it had a lot of trouble attracting a U.S. distributor. This might be a good time to remind you: This is a movie that stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
CAA, which represents Cooper, Lawrence, Bier, and the film, continued to screen it for American distributors. Unpromisingly, Bier screened three different cuts to distributors on three different occasions, essentially letting them take their pick. Even more unpromisingly, they all passed. One buyer told The Hollywood Reporter after a screening that the movie “made no sense.” Others apparently avoided it precisely due to a fear that, in the light of the subsequent high-wattage collaborations between the film’s stars, Serena would seem especially drab. In the end, Magnolia, which is the sister company to 2929 Productions, agreed to distribute it Stateside. The film would get its U.S. release, but there would be no late-season Oscar campaign, no award consideration, and precious little fanfare. In fact, it was quietly, even stealthily, slipped into VOD and iTunes on February 26, well in advance of its limited theatrical release on March 27.
So is Serena that bad? In a way, it’s not bad enough. Serena is not only a film about a bygone era but it feels like a film from a bygone era — an era when when you might have stumbled on Serena as the ABC Sunday Night Movie, watched it because of the stars, then fallen asleep contentedly halfway through. Some of its flaws are obvious: Bier has no feel for the Smoky Mountains, or the Depression, or, really, America, and the story doesn’t flow with any particular coherence, let alone momentum. Other flaws are harder to pin down. The tone is distressingly subdued for a film that’s ostensibly about rapacious ambition run amok. The script never really decides whether Serena is a calculating cutthroat or a winsome woodland foundling. (Or neither. Or both!) Still, each star has his and her moments. The costumes are nice. Rhys Ifans (!) has a creepy turn as an omniscient and amoral mountain-man killer that, had it come enfolded in a much better movie, might have drawn some attention. Instead, it’s smothered in this movie and thus, like the movie itself, it earned no attention at all.
Most of all, Serena is interesting because it’s a much more rare artifact than a really bad movie: It’s an incompetent movie. Unlike more famous movie disasters, it plays out not like the product of one unchecked monstrous ego but of a thousand tiny decisions gone wrong. The editing is incompetent. The pacing is incompetent. The scenes don’t logically flow from one to the next. The soundtrack sounds like it was generated by a computer-soundtrack algorithm set to “mournful fiddle.” Serena is a bracing reminder of how much expertise goes into making even the most uninspired movie — how dozens of people with wildly different skill sets all have to perform well or the whole project is imperiled. The stars may be the ones with their names plastered over the title, but if you’re Jennifer Lawrence, trapped in Serena like Rapunzel in her tower dungeon, your powers of self-salvation are limited. You can’t reedit the film or rescore its music or rescout its locations. In the end, the lesson of Serena isn’t how remarkable it is when a movie like this goes badly, but how improbable it is that any movie at all turns out to be good.