'Cherry': Film Review

Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo in “Cherry,” on Apple TV+.
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Ciara Bravo and Tom Holland in 'Cherry'

Way overripe.
2/26/2021

Tom Holland plays a Cleveland college dropout who spirals into drug addiction and crime after coming home from Iraq with PTSD in the Russo Brothers' drama based on Nico Walker's novel.

"Sometimes I feel like I've already seen everything that's gonna happen. And it's a nightmare," says Tom Holland's title character early in the voiceover narration that gurgles like whitewater rapids through the Russo Brothers' Cherry. A little later, after experiencing the horror of combat as an Army medic in Iraq, he adds: "Suddenly there was nothing interesting about it anymore." You might find yourself nodding in agreement for the wrong reasons during this posturing vanity production, a drama that wears its gritty poetry on its sleeve like a macho film-school merit badge, trivializing war, trauma and addiction with its veneration of style over psychological complexity.

After their stewardship of a handful of squillion dollar-grossing MCU features — most recently Avengers: Endgame — it's no great mystery why Anthony and Joe Russo would be given carte blanche to return to something closer to their origins, with a story rooted in their native Cleveland. Basically a two hour-plus marriage of dirty-realist misery porn with flashy technique followed by five minutes of the most clichéd and unearned redemption, this grandiose misfire does nothing to advance Apple TV+'s footprint in the original film arena.

In the busy first 15 minutes, a deflating feeling sinks in that these guys must have seen Goodfellas a hundred times. That's followed by similar realizations about Full Metal Jacket, Requiem for a Dream, Drugstore Cowboy and any number of other superior films that make Cherry feel hopelessly derivative.

The muscular camerawork of Newton Thomas Sigel, with its swooping drone shots and virtuoso tracking sequences, is impressive on a craft level, especially if you've ever felt the need for a seeing-eye anal probe. But none of the tricksy visuals or ostentatious embellishments, like profane insults splashed across the screen in blood-red text, make you care about the characters. Which is too bad for Holland, who hurls himself into the role with the misapprehension that Cherry has something profound to say about the protagonist's dark existential void.

Coming on the heels of Antonio Campos' turgid Southern Gothic, The Devil All the Time, this suggests the talented Holland is anxious to avoid being locked into a squeaky-clean Peter Parker mold. But perhaps he needs to steer clear of contemporary American fiction as source material for a while.

The screenplay was adapted by the directors' sister Angela Russo-Otstot (The Shield, V) and Jessica Goldberg (Hulu's The Path) from U.S. Army vet Nico Walker's semi-autobiographical 2018 debut novel of the same name. But any authenticity in the spiral from undiagnosed PTSD through opioid and heroin addiction, bank robberies and prison time is also undermined by excessive observance of a literary model, right down to five individually titled chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue.

The establishing shots of leafy suburbs amid depressed industrial sprawl set the tone as a gaunt-looking 23-year-old Cherry leaves his home in 2007 and, with a mix of voiceover and direct-to-camera address, walks us through the steps of an armed bank robbery that will ultimately lead to his arrest. The use of "Brand New Day" (one of three Van Morrison songs featured on the soundtrack) conveys the contradictory idea of hope and renewal, while repeated mentions of sadness suggest this is going to be a film that talks about that state more often than effectively evoking it.

Part One backtracks five years to Cherry's first sighting of his true love Emily (Ciara Bravo) in a college lecture hall, illuminated like a cathedral altar. The script then meanders at length over peripheral details like his restaurant jobs and his narcissistic high school girlfriend, laced with stylized visual inserts and juiced up with rapid-fire editing. Eventually, Cherry confesses to Emily, "I adore you," with a single tear, while she proves he's not the only one who speaks in bad prose: "Sometimes I feel like love doesn't actually exist. It's just pheromones playing tricks on people."

Emily's hesitation about giving herself over to love prompts her to announce she's transferring to a Montreal college. She changes her mind, but not before heartsick Cherry has enlisted in the Army. Following an impulse courthouse marriage, he's off to basic training in Part Two, with a stock sadistic drill sergeant and a long, loud Charlie Company cheer, to which Cherry is designated to dance the robot every time.

Part Three brings deployment to Iraq, where bullying officers scream creative terms of endearment like "fuckstick" and "cock holster" while grunts like Cherry tuck the spilled entrails of soldiers back into their bodies or watch their company mates get blown up. Only Emily’s voice on phone calls keeps him sane.

Parts Four and Five chronicle the difficult readjustment to home life, and the cynical disillusionment of being awarded a Medal of Valor "for not dying." There's some casual observation of the ways in which American veterans are set adrift by their government as Cherry takes construction work for $8 an hour. And after escaping from his nightmares with an OxyContin buzz, courtesy of his childhood friend James Lightfoot (Forrest Goodluck), it's easy enough for him to get a prescription from a veteran affairs medic.

The latter's desk nameplate, "Dr. Whomever," is one of several self-conscious winks obviously intended to inject humor into the inevitable descent to rock bottom. As Cherry and eventually Emily graduate from opioids to heroin and their need for a fix makes him increasingly reckless, he starts knocking over financial institutions marked by signage like "Shitty Bank," "Bank Fucks America" and "Credit None." The social commentary doesn't exactly run deep.

Nothing does, really. The Russos are so enamored with the aestheticized squalor of their punishing saga that despite the capable cast, the film keeps you at an indifferent distance from its characters. Even at their lowest point — risking death from an overdose or from payback after they ingest a ruthless drug lord's entire supply — it's hard to get invested in Cherry or Emily, let alone more marginal figures like James or their dealer, known only as Pills & Coke (Jack Reynor). At every single point of the narrative, the visual impact takes precedence over emotional involvement, quite literally going for operatic effect with bursts of Puccini and Verdi. Rare moments of intimacy are smothered in artifice.

Walker's story no doubt is grounded in a very real milieu that reflects the grim existence of countless Americans returning from active duty to a country blighted by economic downturn, shrinking opportunity and substance abuse. But the only reality Cherry reflects with numbing insistence is that of co-directors getting high on their own high style.

Production companies: Apple Original Films, AGBO, The Hideaway Entertainment
Distribution: Apple TV+ (in theaters Feb. 26; streaming March 12)
Cast: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Jeff Wahlberg, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, Daniel R. Hill
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Angela Russo-Otstot, Jessica Goldberg, based on the novel by Nico Walker
Producers: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Mike Larocca, Jonathan Gray, Matthew Rhodes, Jake Aust, Chris Castaldi
Executive producers: Kristy Grisham, Judd Payne, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Edward Cheng, Patrick Newall, Angela Russo-Otstot, Todd Makurath, Nico Walker, Matthew Johnson
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Phil Ivey
Costume designer: Sara Sensoy
Music: Henry Jackman
Editor: Jeff Groth
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood
Rated R, 141 minutes