Movie review: Good chemistry cannot save bad dialogue


110 minutes / Opens tomorrow / *½

The story: George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a lumber baron with an operation located in the North Carolina mountains in 1929. He marries the unconventional Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) and soon, she begins to clash with his right-hand man Buchanan (David Dencik). When Serena learns of George's past indiscretion, she turns to the skulking Galloway (Rhys Ifans) to help her wreak terrible vengeance. Based on the novel of the same name by American author Ron Rash.

Moviegoers know Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper can generate chemistry together.

Despite the age gap - she is 24, he is 39 - they sizzled in the romantic drama Silver Linings Playbook (2012). They were both nominated for Oscars and Lawrence won for Best Actress. The two also worked together in the acclaimed comedy-drama American Hustle (2013), though they did not play a couple there.

And because they enjoyed working together so much, Lawrence persuaded Cooper to come on board for Serena. They forgot, though, that you cannot generate sparks in a vacuum.

The script by Christopher Kyle is full of risible dialogue and acclaimed Danish director Susanne Bier flounders in the follow-up to her first American film, the drama Things We Lost In The Fire (2007).

The courtship between George and Serena is perfunctory and he essentially wins her over with: "I think we should be married."

And more than once, they profess their feelings for each other with lazy lines such as "I really love you".

Hidden in this dour, dreary film is a potentially interesting one with feminist leanings. What happens when a strong woman is introduced into a fraternity where men run the world and women serve, cook and raise babies? What does she have to do to prove herself?

While moviegoers get a scene of Lawrence manfully wielding an axe, she is eventually reduced to a hysterical state in an over-the-top resolution.

Instead, Bier adds other elements such as the clash between the timber-for-profit and woodland- for-preservation factions, mostly to wooden effect. Meanwhile, George is hunting down an elusive panther and it feels like the film is straining for metaphor, but ends up falling flat.

This is a rare misstep for Lawrence, who has ably balanced crowd-pleasers such as young-adult franchise The Hunger Games with acclaimed arthouse work in films such as Winter's Bone (2010).

Working with friends is well and good, but next time, she might want to read the script more carefully.

This article was first published on December 31, 2014.
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