Words By R.R.
Into each life some rain eventually falls, and in a bomb called Serena, golden couple Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, united for the third time onscreen, arrive soaking wet.
This is one of those “whatever were they thinking of?” mistakes where they should all have stayed in bed. Fresh on the heels of success from his Broadway triumph in The Elephant Man and his hit movie American Sniper, this is an unfortunate next step for Mr. Cooper, while Ms. Lawrence, who co-starred with him memorably in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, finds the third time far from a charm, more like a curse. Set in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina in 1929 but filmed in the gloomy woods of the Czech Republic, it’s a disagreeable tale about the barren wife of a lumber baron who sets out to kill a woman from an old affair who bore him a child. Mr. Cooper plays George Pemberton, a rugged, self-made pioneer whose timber company faces ruin in the stock market crash. Enter Serena (Ms. Lawrence), as a spirited bottle-blonde firebrand with the experience (her father owned 40,000 acres of Colorado forest) to become a partner in bed and business. Instead of helping him expand his empire, she drives him wild with ecstasy writhing around in silk panties, clashes with conservationists, wrecks her husband’s relationship with his business partner, bankrupts and ruins him, and turns the strapping frontier hero she married into a ruthless, scheming heel. Between passionate sexual romps, the couple’s lumber industry enrages the locals, who prefer to see the land turned into a government-sponsored national park. With no interest in needlepoint or serving tea to idle ladies, Serena spends her time training an eagle to kill off snakes, panthers and other predators, bossing the laborers around on horseback, corrupting the company’s financial ledgers, and driving hard bargains. First evidence that Serena has more on her mind than just tossing flapjacks for a hearty breakfast comes when she explains that she got the jagged scars on her back at the age of 12 in a terrible fire that mysteriously wiped out her siblings while she just kept running, ignoring their screams. A miscarriage turns her sour and wicked, and the sudden arrival of a woman with a baby who looks just like Pemberton turns her homicidal. When she saves the life of a morbid, sulking backwoods drifter named Galloway (creepy British scarecrow Rhys Ifans) who believes she’s pre-ordained to be the woman of his dreams, the whole movie begins a slow, ponderous descent into madness that drags on for almost two hours and barely manages to keep the audience from snoring.
The director is Norway’s Susanne Bier, who seems to be phoning it in from downtown Oslo. When was the last time you saw a Norwegian film with any energy? The terrible script by Christopher Kyle is more wooden than the tree stumps the lumberjacks leave behind. Call it half western costume epic in the Carpathian hills (think Cold Mountain), half Depression-era Macbeth, sandbagged by melodramatic hokum. The characters are underdeveloped, basic elements like motivation and plot development are replaced by myriad shots of fog-shrouded mountains and snow-covered trees to pad out the running time, proving that Jennifer Lawrence need more than camera angles to pull off what passes for acting. Call Serena a bleak and mournful slice of Nordic déjà vu—and head in the opposite direction.
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
Another inconsequential Noel Baumbach parody of so-called “normal” people trying to function in a fractional society changing too rapidly to keep up with it, While We’re Young is a dreary bummer. The theme is about how awful it is to become a responsible, middle aged adult drowning in a culture that worships youth and considers anyone over 40 six feet under. Writer-director Baumbach observes misery from the same point of view (“I hate myself!”) in every film, but this one is more obnoxious than most. You don’t get many contemporary comedies that even begin with a groan—quoting Ibsen, no less. It goes downhill from there.
Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and the overexposed Naomi Watts, who seems to pop up these days in every role Meryl Streep turns down) are a married couple trying to convince each other they’re happy and content in their union—enjoying a freedom that comes without the responsibility and inconvenience of children. But he’s a neurotic 44-year-old filmmaker with arthritis, failing eyesight, and no income, and she’s just frustrated. Her husband just can’t measure up to her father, a famous documentary director, played by a desperately miscast, poker-faced Charles Grodin, who, as an insulting, intellectual power brain, is about as believable as Johnny Depp playing a cocker spaniel. Anyway, they become infatuated with a younger, hipper couple who convince them they’re wasting their lives somewhere, as Auntie Mame used to say, between 40 and death.
The younger couple are Jamie (Adam Driver), a filmmaker so dumb he can’t distinguish Citizen Kane from The Goonies, and his wife Darby (a waste of the enchanting Amanda Seyfried), an over-stimulated weirdo who sells almond and avocado sorbet. They share a hippie New York apartment that looks like a warehouse with a pet chicken. Battling the New York traffic on bikes, buying stupid hats, and attending hip hop classes, the older people give up charades and cookouts with their old friends in exchange for vile Peruvian-root juice diets, vomiting up their toxins into buckets on the living room floor. The forty-somethings turn into twenty-somethings, but once they discover the idiotic wastes of time called Facebook and Twitter, their lives fall apart. The big shock comes when Josh discovers the young people who talk incessantly about truth are in fact willing to betray him because they secretly crave the same kind of success the older people have. “Times change, different things matter now,” somebody says. Forget about ethics and loyalty and honest human values. Jamie steals everything from Josh in a subplot that questions the authenticity of documentary filmmaking. The idea that experienced maturity is better than youthful ignorance is a valid one, but this is not a movie I’m likely to remember. It’s not witty or original enough to resonate, and some of the scenes, like the prolonged visit to a hippie commune with a spaced-out guru are corny enough to play like discarded pages from a Judd Apatow movie. For me, the problem with While We’re Young is that everyone under 40 is moronic and everyone over 40 is guilty, bored, and too eager to trash their values to hang out with kids whose ideals couldn’t fill the pages of a comic book. There’s something wonderfully reassuring about age and a movie this empty makes me glad I’ll never see 40 again. The actors have the frantic look of people rising from a nightmare, except for Charles Grodin, who never wakes up at all.