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Film Review: "Serena"

Mad for trees


Now that we're firmly entrenched in the 24-7 information age, ubiquity can often be a byproduct of a successful acting career. Keeping that gravy train on track requires work, and since her Oscar-nominated breakthrough in 2010's "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence has appeared in about a dozen films. Add to that the perpetual self-promotion of talk shows and red carpets, breathless mash notes on BuzzFeed and GIFs of her face-planting upon winning her Academy Award, and at this point Lawrence is officially overexposed.

That's a problem when your only job is to convince people you're somebody else, and for Lawrence, her growing inability to disappear into a role has never been more of an issue than in her latest film, a forgettable bomb called "Serena."

Set in the Smoky Mountains during 1929, "Serena" stars Bradley Cooper and his wobbly Boston accent as George Pemberton, a timber magnate in the midst of deforesting the mountains of North Carolina. During a brief business trip to civilization, George encounters the alluring Serena (Lawrence, all platinum waves and crimson lips), whom he quickly marries and brings back to the camp. The last surviving member of a Colorado logging family lost to a house fire, Serena is described as "mad for trees," and it's not long before the headstrong Mrs. Pemberton is cracking the whip, much to the dismay of Buchanan (David Dencik), her husband's weirdly possessive right-hand man. Serena does, however, have an ally in Galloway (a nearly unrecognizable Rhys Ifans), mountain man, ex-con, panther tracker, and whatever else is required to move the congested storyline along.

"Nothing that happened before even exists," Serena purrs to George upon noticing the wounded looks directed at him by his extremely pregnant former maid, and what could have been a thoughtful character study about an early 20th-century feminist scrapping her way to the top of a male-dominated industry instead devolves into a ferocious backwoods catfight. Screenwriter Christopher Kyle doesn't pack enough of Serena's emotional and physical baggage to prevent her rapid unhinging from seeming completely out of the blue, and as a result "Serena" plays like soapy misogynism about a childless woman driven homicidal with uncontrollable envy. Working from the 2008 novel by Ron Rash, Kyle also tries to shoehorn underdeveloped subplots about George's shady dealings, his battle with the National Parks Service, and a guilty conscience over both his illegitimate child and some slightly premeditated blood on his hands.

Word on the street is that Darren Aronofsky was initially set to direct "Serena" (with Angelina Jolie in the title role), but the job ultimately fell to Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, whose 2010 drama "In a Better World" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Shot well before the release of the wildly overpraised "Silver Linings Playbook," "Serena" went through a severe editing process, yet the final product could benefit from even more chopping. What's the deal with Ifans' enigmatic yet crucial character? Why does George's obsession with killing a local panther warrant so much running time? Didn't anyone in post-production notice how hilarious the sex scenes are? If there's anything kind to say it's that the Czech Republic is quite fetching as North Carolina (cinematography is by Denmark's Morten Søborg, who also shot the very different but very awesome "Pusher" trilogy) and the period costuming is on point.

But no one person need shoulder the blame for this fiasco. Cooper's go-to facial expression veers between pained and embarrassed, and midway through the film he seems to give up, resigned to watching his co-star gnaw through the scenery. Even if her character didn't just look distractingly like Jennifer Lawrence playing Depression-era dress-up, Lawrence's performance is so overwrought with googly-eyed histrionics that it becomes impossible to care about the fate of this Appalachian Lady Macbeth and her sudden-onset bloodlust. Of the supporting cast only Sweden's Dencik elicits any sympathy as Buchanan, his choices increasingly desperate yet justifiable up against the iron will of Serena. Dencik also played Klara's dad in Lukas Moodysson's adorable punk manifesto "We Are the Best!" You'd be way better off Netflixing that film instead.