Amidst 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 of the same name -- winds up sawing logs.
But don't take my word for it: "Serena"'s ineptitude is the obvious conclusion to take from the film's three-year delay on its way to a halfhearted release on video on demand and in theaters -- despite the re-pairing of co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook"). The only other possibility would have been that Bier's film was 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 who struts and frets her hour (and 49 minutes) upon the sound stage.
Shakespeare 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 the fact that she's been literally burned by it, only to double down on ambition. Together, the two 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 banality, 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 locating hard truths of the human condition, "Serena" lumbers through the motions.
Rated R for some violence and sexuality. One hour, 49 minutes.