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Jennifer Lawrence can ugly-cry like a champ. And when paired with Bradley Cooper—well, her contribution to their heat in Silver Linings Playbook won her an Oscar. (All right: The spunk, charm, and all-around relatability she gave Tiffany may have been a factor, too.) Just try to look away when either cranks his or her blue eyes to high beam. Collectively, they’re an embarrassment of “It.”
But none of this can save Serena, a Depression-era film that tends toward melodrama. Cooper plays George Pemberton, a North Carolina timber baron with a curious accent who sees Serena (Lawrence) at an equestrian show, says hello, and tells her they should be married. Boom, it’s done.
Turns out the bride comes from a logging family herself, so she immediately starts speaking her mind—in between smooching and thrusting, of course. And there is a lot of smooching and thrusting. For a while, it seems as if the two emerge from their cottage only to give orders, and then it’s back to admiring each other. George has some baggage, in the form of a servant he knocked up. But when he starts explaining the situation to Serena, she cuts him off with—no joke—“It doesn’t matter! Our love began the day we met. Nothing before exists!”
(One imagines that director Susanne Bier had to do many takes before Lawrence could say those lines without breaking.)
Serena is ultimately a potboiler, with scripter Christopher Kyle adapting only the bare bones of a Ron Rash novel. You get plot turns instead of character development, with the corrupt George turning sensitive and the emotional Serena turning into a rabbit-cooker as their marriage wears on and the honeymoon phase wears off. A shady dude named Galloway (Rhys Ifans, actually the most magnetic he’s ever been) looms nearby, always. Things get bloody, yet the soundtrack oddly recalls the kind of sweeping strings you hear during family-friendly movies that include a dog.
The film, which was shot after Silver Linings Playbook wrapped, originally had Darren Aronofsky attached to direct, with Angelina Jolie starring. It’s difficult to imagine what the Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream helmer would have done with this paint-by-numbers material—would hallucinations and opium have been involved? Paranoia amped to foil-hat levels? If Kyle, who wrote Jolie’s 2004 bomb Alexander, was already signed then, it’s understandable why she jumped horse.
Serena also leans way heavy on a panther metaphor, to the point where one tragic scene will probably make you laugh. Admittedly, Lawrence is still impressive here, expressing complex emotions and subtly icing over when her character realizes George may not be her source of eternal happiness. (Hint: Contrary to her earlier proclamation, a love child always matters.)
Cooper might have seemed like he’d elevated his game after the abomination that is The Hangover series, but since Serena comes after impressive turns in Silver Linings, American Hustle, and American Sniper, he looks disappointingly mediocre. (And really: What the hell is that accent supposed to be? And where does it drop off to in the second half of the film?)
This dusty attempt to cash in should have sat on the shelf like so many missteps of other big stars. But to anyone who believes Lawrence and Cooper are now a bit overexposed—ya think?—here’s some schadenfreude. Turns out they’re not perfect after all.
When darkness enshrouds you so thoroughly that the only thing you feel is your plunge to the proverbial rock bottom, sometimes the best way out is to crash through and take craziness one level deeper. Last year’s Wild, for example, lightly fictionalized the story of Cheryl Strayed, an inexperienced outdoorswoman who nevertheless decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—all 2,663 miles of it, all alone—after the death of her mother, the demise of her marriage, and the dead end her drug use and indiscriminate sex promised. The result was sanity.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter isn’t so much a fictionalized telling of a real situation as it is a fantasy of what turned out to be a pedestrian one. But the main character is despondent as Strayed was: Kumiko (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi) is a 29-year-old office drone living in a cramped, bleak apartment in Tokyo. Her mother hounds her about marriage and says she might as well move back home.
Kumiko, on whom Kikuchi plasters an expression of pure misery, interacts with the world in a frustratingly awkward way only found in movies and maybe mental hospitals: People talk to her, and she’s unresponsive, uncommunicative, usually staring at her feet. “Say something!” you’ll want to yell. It’s really fucking irritating. But I guess that’s how director David Zellner pictures depressives.
Zellner wrote the script with his brother, Nathan Zellner, after hearing a tall tale about a Japanese woman who was found dead in snowy North Dakota woods in 2001. The rumor alleged that her destination was Fargo, and that her mission was to find the buried treasure depicted in, yes, Fargo, which she believed was a documentary. (Be careful with those “based on a true story” intros, filmmakers!) The Zellners became obsessed with fleshing out what was probably a one-paragraph blurb in the local newspaper. When it was discovered weeks later that the woman was searching for nothing but a place to kill herself, the Zellners remained fixated on their original idea.
The fruits of their brainstorm are alternately puzzling, dreamlike, angering, and heartbreaking. You don’t know exactly what led to Kumiko’s passivity and unhappiness—though mom and her boss are clues—nor why she felt compelled to walk frigid Midwest roads wearing nothing warmer than a bright red hoodie, saying the treasure is her “destiny.” A cacophonous soundtrack, from piercing, static radio frequencies to Inception-like rumble, dominates parts of scenes, suggesting that what’s going on in Kumiko’s head is not very good.
Yet when random Americans like a dotty old woman who serves as a Fargo homage (“I like crafts, too,” she says when Kumiko impatiently shows her a hand-sewn map. “Only I do doilies!”) try to deter Kumiko, you’ll wish she spoke English so she could cut off their it’s-too-cold or it’s-not-real arguments and insist they just point her in the right direction already. She may be detached from reality, but once Kumiko finally kicks her old life to the curb, that void quickly fills with backbone.
Whether Kumiko finds the riches is a detail the Zellners leave to viewer interpretation—it’s not a typical open ending, but one that has no wrong answer. Considering that the filmmakers glued you to the screen with a sullen, silent, and completely charisma-free heroine in nearly every scene, the treasure turns out to be not just a plot point, but Kumiko itself.
Serena opens Friday, March 27 at Bethesda Row Cinema.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens Friday, March 27 at E Street Cinema.