serena1You know that a movie is bad when an appearance by Jennifer Lawrence can’t save it – and not simply an appearance in the film, but an honest-to-God, in-the-flesh (and quite a bit of flesh was showing) physical presence at a screening. Such was the case at the world premiere of Serena at the London Film Festival. Director Susanne Bier, in her introductory remarks, announced a huge surprise and then brought Lawrence out before a delighted audience at the sold-out Vue West End Cinema. Looking like Hollywood royalty in a perfectly fitted tuxedo jacket, high heels, and very little else, Lawrence smiled, waved, and warmed the crowd on a chilly, rainy London evening. She then wisely departed – not just the theater, but the country as well. Lawrence was nowhere to be found when the houselights came back up after the showing of a film that could charitably be described as disappointing.

In point of fact, much of Serena is far worse than disappointing. After a promising start, the film degenerates from drama to melodrama, sinks into soap opera, and hits bottom as a laughable attempt at symbolism. Its greatest achievement is its unalterably downward descent as the story unfolds. The film has languished in post production for approximately forever in terms of Hollywood time. When they started filming Serena, Lawrence and co-star Bradley Cooper had completed work on Silver Linings Playbook, but the film had not been released, and Lawrence had not yet stormed the multiplex as Katniss Everdeen. Fast forward to the present and we have two A-Listers with a combined five Oscar nominations between them, showing up in a shabby production that, by all rights, should be seen only in their rear view mirrors.

Serena is set in a North Carolina logging camp in the Smoky Mountains at the beginning of the Great Depression, although it’s the Czech Republic that stands in for Appalachia. The establishing shots of the region and the camp are striking, but the effect is negated over time as the same images are reused repeatedly throughout the film. Cooper plays George Pemberton, a would-be timber baron who is deeply indebted to bankers no longer impressed with his collateral and who would like to see him put down his land in Brazil as a guarantee before rolling over the loans. In between these negotiations, Pemberton finds time to save a man from a runaway train and impregnate his servant before heading to town and bagging a wife.

Enter Serena Pemberton (Lawrence), beautiful, but unlucky in lumber one might say. Her entire family burned to death when their logging operation in Colorado caught fire when she was 12, but Serena is as good as any man in camp and a lot more fun in the sack, according to her husband when they ride back home. Serena is a partner at a time when women were not welcome outside the kitchen, but she proves herself to the workers by bringing in an eagle to kill rattlesnakes, thus demonstrating more efficiency at containing the local wildlife than her husband who has been fruitlessly stalking an imaginary panther. Assisting the Pemberton’s is Galloway (Rhys Ifans), George’s guide, Serena’s protector, and another in a long line of movie seers who somehow cannot manage to foretell their own demise.

The timber operation is under threat by a budding environmental movement that wants the land to be converted to a national park, and George’s business partner, Buchanan (David Dencik) is nervous about the operation’s prospects and jealous of Serena’s role. So of all the possible threads that director Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle (working from a novel by Ron Rash) could pursue – the Great Depression, a strong woman competing in a man’s world, the first environmental movement in the United States, the founding of the national park system, the exploitation of Brazilian resources, ESP, backroom politics and/or backstabbing businessmen – which one do you think they decide to build the movie around?

Women as baby vessels, of course, because no woman, no matter how beautiful, intelligent or capable will ever be truly fulfilled or, in fact, even remain sane, if she cannot have a child. Serena sees that her husband has an illegitimate child , so everything else should be put on hold until she can destroy the mother, the child, and the movie. Lawrence works fiercely to try and save this film, but the scope of the calamity is beyond one actor’s capabilities. Cooper, on the other hand, seems to give up about halfway through. Given where the narrative takes his character, there is no surprise that his performance is unconvincing by the film’s end.  One problem with the script is that the “bad guys” are not even entertainingly bad or grandiose in their evil. They are simply sad and predictable, and we are left with a washed-out soap opera that would not even make for an entertaining episode of Downton Abbey.

The final scenes are so ludicrous that as the last image plays across the screen, you almost expect to hear Mr. Peabody in a voiceover intone, “And that’s how they became known as the Smoky Mountains.”

One and a half stars.

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