Some years ago, at the height of their respective careers, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starred in a movie called Serena. It’s likely you’ve never seen it, or if you did, you didn’t like it; it was not well received by distributors or critics, and it shocked most of the industry when, in early 2015, a film starring two of the biggest stars of the moment went directly to digital platforms. Seemingly nothing went as planned during the film’s production and afterwards, resulting in a very expensive, very unwatched big-budget movie. As this Vulture article from the time notes, “In the end, the lesson of Serena isn’t how remarkable it is when a movie like this goes badly, but how improbable it is that any movie at all turns out to be good.”
I found myself recalling the woeful tale of Serena as I watched Rebecca Miller’s latest, She Came to Me. The director of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and The Ballad of Jack and Rose has an interest in interpersonal stories on a scale not nearly as grand as Serena, and while the cast is notable (Anne Hathaway, Peter Dinklage, Marisa Tomei), no one would argue they are the box office draws Lawrence and Cooper were (and arguably are). Nevertheless, there’s some startlingly similar issues here, in a film that, on paper, should work. As mentioned, there’s the cast, all three of whom have respectable, acclaimed filmographies. The premise, about an opera composer with major writer’s block (Dinklage) and his run-ins with inspiration in unexpected places, feels reasonable, perhaps even intriguing. The film is set in New York City’s stylish brownstones, and there’s even an adorable, ornery French bulldog who steals a few scenes.
Yet with all these elements working in its favor, She Came to Me is a mess, a convoluted narrative where reveals fall flat, characters actively lose sympathy the more we get to know them, and there’s really no reason to care where Steven (Dinklage), his therapist-turned-wife Patricia (Hathaway), or the…wait for it…tugboat captain Katrina (Tomei) end up by the time the credits roll.
Stuck in his writing process and very quickly getting on Patricia’s nerves (which, anal-retentive as she is, isn’t hard), Steven (and that adorable bulldog) are shoved off to go for an aimless walk in search of inspiration. When he stops along the way for a drink at a local dive, Steven is approached by a woman also aimlessly drinking her day away (Katrina, the tugboat captain and, confoundingly, something called a “romance addict”?!), and soon the two are back on the boat and he’s finding inspiration in her bedsheets.
There is so much more plot, including Patricia’s teenage son from a previous marriage, Julian (Evan Ellison) and his girlfriend, Tereza (Harlow Jane), as well as her parents, an undocumented immigrant mother (Joanna Kulig) and an all-around creep of a Civil War reenacter Trey (Brian D’Arcy James); Miller, who also wrote the script, manages to tie all these kooks together in a star-crossed-lovers type plot that is so convoluted it’s not even mentioned in the film’s trailer.
In some world, She Came to Me is supposed to be funny, a neurotic romp through modern relationships and the ways we find inspiration, where we channel our creativity and how we suffer when we don’t have healthy outlets. Dinklage, Hathaway and Tomei are certainly doing their best to squeeze every drop of humor out of an awkward, overstuffed script. But you can only get so much water from a stone, and while Miller has a solid enough track record as a filmmaker who ably and interestingly explores human nature and relationships, she comes up short here. Like Serena nearly a decade ago, She Came to Me will go down as a film that, by all accounts, should be a winner. This ain’t it.