The film opens with Bradley Cooper on the hunt for panthers, and for a moment one can imagine Serena is about an L.L. Bean model named George who has an affinity for vintage rifles. Actually, it’s fun to imagine this the whole time, as seemingly hipster men in tight-fitted suits smoke cigars and Jennifer Lawrence wears Pussy Bow after Pussy Bow blouse (yes, the real name, and currently trendy). But Susanne Bier’s Serena isn’t about panthers or lumbersexuals or anything all that exciting. Instead, it’s simply a love story with too many additional plot lines. George (Cooper) runs a timber empire and falls for Serena (Lawrence), a woman who’s lost her family in a tragic fire and is deemed partner in George’s business. Right there we’ve got a few plot points. But then multiple traitors surface, there’s death, there’s murder, there’s a state park to be built, there’s raw mahogany waiting in Brazil… And none of these things is satisfyingly wrapped up.
You could argue no thrilling film begins with “Smoky Mountains, 1929” written across the screen and thus expectations should be low, but the pace of Serena is surprisingly painful. We don’t need to see Lawrence ride a horse slow-motion to know she’s pretty, for example. Meanwhile, the time allotted to each plot point seems completely random, making the overall film feel lopsided. Somehow the script was on The Black List, making me believe on paper it was astounding– but was it really written this way? Or are these choices Bier made? Or do JLaw and Cooper really move so slowly? Of course they don’t; we’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook and their dancing proves otherwise.
It’s pretty and it’s entertaining in some ways (remember the viewing trick mentioned above?), but Serena poses so many questions, aside from the plot holes. How are Serena’s nails always perfectly red? Is there really only one other woman in town? Did Ryan Murphy direct that freakishly white hospital scene? Where does Rachel go? Honestly, by the end there’s so much screaming and tears and no panthers that you’d be better off seeing Playbook or American Hustle (the other Cooper/Lawrence collaboration) for the bazillionth time. There’s a reason Lawrence wasn’t tripping up a stage for a Serena-granted Oscar.