(2015) * 1/2 R
109 min. Magnolia Pictures. Director: Susanne Bier. Cast: Rhys Ifans, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence.

/content/films/4781/1.jpgAmidst the Smoky Mountains, circa 1929, a power couple conspires to expand its lumber enterprise, even if it means...muuuurder! It's a story ripe for dark atmosphere, social satire, or self-consciously melodramatic brio, but Serena—as adapted by screenwriter Christopher Kyle and director Susanne Bier from Ron Rash's 2008 novel—winds up sawing logs.

But don't take my word for it: Serena's ineptitude is the obvious conclusion to draw from the film's three-year-delay on its way to a halfhearted release on VOD and in theaters—despite the star re-pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook). The only other possibility, a remote one, would have been that Bier's film were simply too artful to be commercial, but, um, no. Other than the stars, Serena has fetching period detail and quite gorgeous location photography by Bier's go-to lenser Morten Søborg, enough to liken Serena to a beautiful but vacant runway model that struts and frets her hour (and forty-nine minutes) upon the sound stage.

Macbeth also provides something of a model for Lawrence's titular character: a Lady Macbeth type, but one contextualized with a Significant Trauma she's determined to power through by joining forces with Cooper's lumber magnate George Pemberton. George respects Serena's knowledge of the lumber industry (acquired under her father) and how she's been literally burned by it only to double down on ambition. Together, the two against the world dig in against government encroachment on their wooded acres.

Further complicating the couple's profiteering are shady financial dealings, blackmail that threatens to unearth them, and George's bastard son with a local woman (Ana Ularu). The child's pull on George—and Serena's insecurity about providing George with a child of their own—fan flames of jealousy that, mingled with fiery protectiveness of the family business, drive both George and Serena to criminal misconduct and marital discord, to put it lightly.

Lawrence and Cooper avoid embarrassment, but they're hobbled by a seemingly indifferent script offering little more than psychosexual cliches and obvious one-thing-after-another plotting. Though Lawrence establishes her character as perceptive and no-nonsense (albeit scarred), the manner in which Serena devolves amounts to sexist cliche, and Cooper's George mostly moons under her spell, his one deviation giving him an iota of moral superiority.

Most damagingly, no one—not Kyle, not Bier, not her actors—seems to know what Serena is about, beyond vague thematic suggestions that rapacious business doesn't pay (it doesn't?) and that ambition met with ambition is a combustible catalyst (thank you, Shakespeare). Instead of engaging with those ideas or others, instead of locating hard truths of the human condition, Serena lumbers through the motions.

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