How did “Serena” go from an Oscar contender to a pretender?

Serena Bradley Cooper with Jennifer Lawrence 600x365

You probably aren’t aware of this, but a third Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence collaboration is opening in theaters this weekend. In fact, it has been available On Demand for weeks already. Yes, a film that stars arguably the two biggest stars in Hollywood had a VOD start before the impending limited release on Friday. What movie is this, you ask? Well, it’s Serena, a once incredibly high profile adaptation that had the likes of Darren Aronfosky and Angelina Jolie circling it. Initially slated to come out even before American Hustle, hoping to capitalize on the Cooper/Lawrence success in Silver Linings Playbook, this seemed like a strong Academy Awards player. So…what happened?

For those of you not in the know about Serena, here’s a brief overview. It’s adapted from the novel of the same name by Ron Rash, directed by Oscar winning foreign filmmaker Susanne Bier, and written by Christopher Kyle. The plot concerns timber businessman George Pemberton (played by Cooper) and the machinations of his new wife Serena (played by Lawrence). Deceit, intrigue, and perhaps even murder ensue. In addition to Cooper and Lawrence, the cast includes Rhys Ifans, Sean Harris, Toby Jones, and more. Sounds like sheer awards bait, right? Well, it tuned out to be far from it…and that’s putting it gently.

Essentially, this flick ran into trouble right as production wrapped up. Bier struggled a bit in the editing room and the release date kept changing. Sometimes that’s no big deal, but with a higher profile film like this one, particularly one without a distributor, it begins to influence the buzz. With multiple cuts all failing to land a deal, this quickly got an aura of something potentially disastrous. That’s unfair to a movie that might be misguided but is wholly undeserving of venom, but it had literally years of industry folk crapping on it. Nothing can survive that, even when Cooper and Lawrence had as big a hit in American Hustle as they did with Silver Linings Playbook.

Finally though, Serena is hitting theaters this weekend, giving audiences who haven’t checked it out on VOD a chance to see this for themselves. I have to imagine that it’s become a bit a curiosity among indie film fans, particularly those who followed the troubled history of other movies like Accidental Love (which opened last week after a VOD debut and was originally David O. Russell’s satire Nailed) and Margaret (which turned out to be a masterpiece, against all odds). The business will be light, I’m sure, but it’ll have an appeal to some, no question.

Had it been good, I’m sure we would have been talking about Bradley Cooper again being a contender in the Best Actress race and Jennifer Lawrence especially being a factor in Best Actress. Even Rhys Ifans could have contended for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but also, none of that will be in the cards now. Frankly, it has a better show at Razzie awards, even if that’s hyperbolic in the worst way. Bier and company turned out to be the wrong filmmakers for Serena and the end result is almost a Hollywood cautionary tale.

In the end, this isn’t the sort of film worth talking too much about, as it’s a mediocre at best costume drama that seems to bore most of the people who see it. However, Serena boasts two of the biggest stars of the day, performers known to be at their best when sharing the screen, so here we are. I doubt Serena will be receiving a critical re-assessment anytime soon, but I think we’ll eventually reach a point where it won’t be unfairly dumped on anymore, so there’s that…

Stay tuned to see if Serena manages to overcome the bad buzz!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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