By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — For their first collaboration, in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, she won the Academy Award as best actress while he was nominated as best actor.

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Then, for 2013’s American Hustle, both were Oscar-nominated, she for best supporting actress, he for best supporting actor.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper act opposite each other for a third time in Serena –- although it was actually shot between the two films mentioned above.  And while it’s nowhere near the triumph of those two predecessors, to say the least, it does no harm to either of their individual reputations as magnetic movie stars.

(2 stars out of 4)

(2 stars out of 4)

 

Serena is a melodrama about greed and jealousy, set in Waynesville, NC, during the Great Depression.

Cooper plays George Pemberton, the head of a timber empire and logging operation who marries the title character, played by Lawrence, whom he falls for at first sight and quickly marries.

As soon as he brings her to live with him at the lumber camp in the mountains, where Pemberton’s workers are downing trees in the name of much-needed cash, she starts taking over:  making decisions, lecturing lumberjacks on technique, ordering workers around, wondering about the women in camp with whom her husband had relations before she showed up, and questioning her husband’s questionable accounting practices.

This is immediately resented by Pemberton’s devoted (and then some) business partner and righthand man, played by David Dencik.  And the sheriff, played by Toby Jones, who sees Pemberton as a plunderer, is keeping an eye on the company’s business practices.

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Meanwhile, Serena, whose Lady Macbeth-like manipulativeness is apparent but whose tragic past is not, befriends a mysterious and dangerous woodsman, played by Rhys Ifans, who on her behalf will keep the workers in line.

And before you can say “Timber!” Serena is with child.

Danish director Susanne Bier (Brothers, Things We Lost in the Fire, In a Better World, Love is All You Need), working from a screenplay by Christopher Kyle based on the 2008 best-seller by Ron Rash, fails to make the central characters’ mood changes, decisions, and transformations believable.  We remain very much aware that there’s a puppet master putting these characters through their sometimes arbitrary paces.

By Act Three, when things in camp get very campy, we’ve stopped buying all the extreme behavior, and the bizarre climax lies there like a felled tree.

As for the chemistry between the charismatic Cooper and the laudable Lawrence that the film depends on, it comes up short, even though both performers are watchable in their individual roles.

So we’ll cut down 2 stars out of 4 for Serena, a lumbering lumber drama and star vehicle that can’t quite see the forest for the trees.

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