The arithmetic on "Serena" is fascinating. Two of the biggest movie stars in the world plus an Oscar-winning director and a best-selling novel somehow add up to a forgettable, under-the-radar video-on-demand release.
But movies work by strange, illogical mathematics. Despite its prestigious pedigree, "Serena," starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence , is likely to be remembered as another example of the curious, inexplicable science of moviemaking.
The film, which opens in limited theaters Friday but has been available on VOD for much of the month, has long been a subject of intrigue since it was shot in 2012 and more-or-less hidden under a rock since.
The light of day finally crashing down in "Serena" reveals not so much the disaster one might expect, but a well-intended, handsomely shot but altogether unsuccessful drama. It comes as almost a disappointment. After all this time, one almost hopes for a Titanic-sized catastrophe, not merely a wayward mediocrity.
"Serena," directed by the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier ("In a Better World"), is based on Ron Rash's 2008 novel about a Depression-era timber baron named George Pemberton (Cooper) who's immediately infatuated by a more common woman with a dark past, Serena (Lawrence) .
She's "practically an aboriginal," a woman hisses of Serena, explaining that her family died tragically in a fire when she was 12. But Pemberton's gaze is fixed on her, riding on horseback. He rides to her and proposes. They promptly marry and return to his North Carolina land, a rugged outpost of lumberjacks and steam locomotives where the threat of conservationism lurks. That dreaded villain, the National Park system, is coming.
The setting is evocative. The Czech Republic countryside doubles attractively but unconvincingly for the Smoky Mountains. Here is the Kentucky-born Lawrence, who broke through in the Ozarks drama "Winter's Bone," back in the backwoods, with the crimped blonde hair of a '20s flapper.
Serena is "a pistol," as her husband says, quickly making her presence felt around Pemberton's business, much to the disgruntlement of his right-hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik).
Tension doesn't boil so much as make occasional jabs at entering the film, which seems, as its characters pace back and forth in the mud, to be awaiting instructions. A purpose is elusive and instead, scenes awkwardly assemble the clichéd moments of a frontier drama: Serena is awkwardly positioned as a kind of Lady Macbeth ; lawmen lurk; a hunting expedition turns fatal.
I suspect the story that doesn't come through in "Serena" is about the impossibility of a relationship divorcing itself from the past. When Serena steps off the train in North Carolina, a pregnant woman ( Ana Ularu ), who apparently shares a history with Pemberton, is staring at her. Pemberton stutters an excuse. Serena interrupts him: Everything that came before their love doesn't matter. What follows bleakly and tragically proves that it does.
That that version of "Serena" never comes through with any force or feeling can be attributed to a number of things: the imprecise script by Christopher Kyle ; Cooper's bland, inscrutable performance; the film's uncertain pacing. The period costumes (by Signe Sejlund) and Morten Soborg's smoky widescreen cinematography help paper over the problems, as does the excellent Lawrence.
Sensual and strong, she commands every frame she's in. You can't make a boring film with her, but "Serena" seems to be trying awfully hard to prove you can.
"Serena," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some violence and sexuality." Running time: 109 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.