Serena is a masterclass in piss-poor editing. On paper, it’s baffling that a prestige costume drama featuring two of Hollywood’s currently best-selling acts, Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper, would skip a wide theatrical release and go straight to VOD. On film, it’s entirely understandable. Drowning under an endless flood of inept editing choices is the raw material for a potentially great movie that’s gasping for air, but never allowed to surface. Alternately, Serena is also just a few cuts away from being a brilliantly funny camp classic, but it’s not even allowed to be enjoyable as a terrible film. It’s downright fascinating how frustrating this movie can be. It’s rare that a Hollywood film is released this unpolished and . . . off, but that doesn’t help the fact that it’s not even entertaining as a total disaster.
On the side of the film’s fight for legitimacy there’s an oddly old-fashioned big studio classic feel to the whole affair. Having two of Hollywood’s biggest stars struggle to negotiate their romantic & professional dynamic in an ancient, treacherous locale feels like the exact kind of movie that would’ve been made by every major studio 50 to 80 years ago and it’s charming to return to that familiar Old Hollywood vibe. This is a world where brassy women assert their power with lines like “I didn’t come to Carolina to do needlepoint,” in traditionally male arenas occupied by lumberjack types with perma-stubble & prison tattoos. Cooper & Lawrence aren’t gruff enough to believably sell the dangerous frontiersman developer and his half-feral wife routine, but their natural charisma and the effortlessly pleasant nature of costume dramas in general makes me want to root for the movie to turn out well. If the pacing had the good sense to slow down and let any of these elements breathe it really could’ve been something. That is not what happened.
There is so much more arguing for the movie to go in the camp classic direction. We’re introduced to Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Serena as she’s galloping on a horse in slow motion, a horrendously tender acoustic guitar plucking away in the background. The music doesn’t improve from there, with its slow, sappy, meaningless musings poisoning nearly every moment. The emptily symbolic animal imagery doesn’t stop there either. Bradley Cooper’s character spends the entire film on a laughably maudlin, metaphorical panther hunt and Lawrence finds empty metaphors of her own in the repetitive scenes where she trains an eagle to hunt the snakes that have been biting Cooper’s workers. The animal imagery, like nearly everything else in play, is almost always followed by blunt interjections of Cooper & Lawrence fucking, as if the film were edited by a half-awake Russ Meyer on cough syrup. Immediately after we meet Serena on the horse she’s squirming under the sheets and she comes out of an abrupt montage a married woman. The same The Room-esque sex interruptions occur after her eagle kills its first snake and after she hits on her husband’s investors at a ball in yet another scene that goes nowhere (except back to the bedroom). The images in these montages all feel like placeholders for longer scenes to be added later, a task that no one ever got around to. Oddly enough, the one image afforded the most room to breathe is the most disturbing one of all, a vigorous bathtub fingering that I’m likely to never forget thanks to Cooper’s intense, empty stare. In time, that bathtub moment might be the only image from this film I remember all, both because it’s so uncomfortable and because the other contenders are way too brief to make a lasting impression.
The scale really is tipped for Serena to reach a camp classic status, but it just never gets there. Besides the sex & animals, there’s also an evil, jealous, homosexual henchmen and a mystic, murderous woodsman who has “visions” that both feel like odd caricatures out of a different, thankfully bygone era. Also, any credibility Serena’s struggle to assert herself professionally adds to the plot is severely undercut by her gradual transformation from a confident woman to a murderous Lifetime Movie sociopath in the wild, like a knife-wielding Nell. I promise that sounds so much more fun than the film allows it to be and just as the characters are prone to fast, flat mumbling, so is the film’s editing. Each scene in Serena bleeds into the next in a way that makes no particular moment feel any more or less significant than the one preceding it. A hand being chopped off feels just as important as miscarriage or a blood transfusion or a town hall meeting. It’s all fast, flat mumbling here.
I truly believe someone could recut Serena‘s raw footage into something worthwhile, (starting by pulling brief images out of the endless montages to allow them room to breathe and scrapping the entire awful soundtrack wholesale) and come out the other end with a polished finished project that would have audiences counterintuitively rooting for Cooper & Lawrence to chop down thousands of trees as well as impregnate & murder their employees. It’s entirely possible. It’d be even easier to cut it into an over-the-top melodrama ripe with Lawrence going full, feral Mommy Dearest on the frontier folk. It’s almost there. In Serena’s fight for either legitimacy or camp, it was decidedly much closer to camp, but thoroughly disappointing as either. If nothing else, if someone wanted to learn how not to edit a film’s separate parts together into a cohesive whole, this would be a great place to start.