‘Cherry’ Sees Spider-Man Rob Banks, Shoot Up Heroin, and Fully Commit to a Very Messy Movie
The latest from the Russo brothers, whose impressive ‘Avengers: Endgame” is the highest-grossing film ever, is all style and precious little substance.
There’s definitely such a thing as too much style, and Cherry is proof positive of that fact. Color filters, split screens, freeze frames, shifting aspect ratios, first-person narration, fourth-wall-breaking commentary, cinema homages, music montages, a barrage of look-at-me compositions and camera movements, on-screen text, chapter-marker title cards, smeary and shallow-focus imagery, and arguably more slow-motion than has ever been employed by a single film—Avengers: Endgame maestros Joe and Anthony Russo’s first post-Marvel directorial effort indulges in just about every trick in the book. It’s an attempt to be everything at once, which leaves it feeling like nothing but an empty mishmash of their favorite influences.
An adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Cherry (in theaters on Feb. 26, and Apple TV+ on March 12) doesn’t just pile on the gimmicky formal devices; it spends inordinate amounts of time shouting out to yesteryear classics. Goodfellas is its primary touchstone, both through its Scorsese-ish cinematography and its protagonist’s voiceover and to-the-camera quips. Yet the Russos don’t limit themselves to simply that predecessor, delivering wartime aerial panoramas intended to conjure memories of Apocalypse Now, basic training sequences indebted to Full Metal Jacket, bank robberies with an icy Heat sheen, post-bank robbery getaway car freak-outs modeled after Reservoir Dogs, and jauntily edited action that boasts a faint whiff of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. “I didn’t have any better ideas,” is the way Cherry (Tom Holland) describes an early fateful decision, and the statement feels like the film’s own admission about its creative modus operandi, whose effect is then nicely summed up by a shot from inside the character’s anus.
All of this flash is utilized to compensate for the dreadful hollowness of its story, which concerns Cherry, who after an end-of-the-line prologue incident that will be revisited and resolved during its concluding passages, is introduced as an average college kid with floppy hair, glasses, and eyes for Emily (Ciara Bravo). Theirs is a blissful courtship, but it’s short-lived, since Emily decides to flee her feelings for Cherry (who’s never outright named by the proceedings) and bolt for Montreal. In turn, Cherry impulsively enlists in the Army, only to have Emily change her plans. Since he can’t get out of this commitment, however, he temporarily says goodbye to his paramour—as well as his friends James (Forrest Goodluck) and Joe (Michael Gandolfini), with whom he likes to do casual drugs—and heads off with his fellow recruits, getting his head shaved, doing lots of sit-ups, and being yelled at by Damon Wayans Jr. and various other drill sergeants doing their best R. Lee Ermey impressions.
It’s impossible to know what to glean from Cherry’s fateful military enrollment because Cherry has no perspective on it—it’s just something the kid does because he’s an aimless, vapid cipher. Similarly, the material has little to say about his eventual overseas tour of duty as a medic other than that war is awful, leading to homesickness and horrible tragedy. When Cherry returns to the States, Emily is waiting for him, as are PTSD nightmares that compel him to start feasting on OxyContin and then shooting himself, and Emily, up with heroin. Drug abuse, the film makes clear, is also bad, resulting in violent bouts of puking and mad, anxious desperation that gives people the dumb idea to support their habit by committing felonies. For Cherry, that entails going into banks, holding up $1 bills that read “I have a gun” and “This is a robbery,” and walking out with wads of cash, security camera footage of his face be damned.
The affectation never ends in Cherry, as opera singing, Van Morrison tunes, flashbacks, and quick insert shots continue to turn the enterprise into a showcase for the Russos’ behind-the-camera (and editorial) skills. It’s all just empty posturing, however, because Cherry’s plight is only interesting insofar as it involves assorted narrative stages—teenage college years; military service; narco-addiction; bank robbery—that conform to disparate film genres. His is a story that’s superficially wild but devoid of any larger meaning, aside from suggesting that young love can be tumultuous, joining the Army can be punishing and traumatic, and doing drugs and sticking up local financial outfits is a surefire road to ruin. It’s a one-note heaven-to-hell-to-disgraceful-damnation trajectory, and all the aesthetic razzle-dazzle in the world can’t imbue it with a measure of weight or originality.
As the film’s wayward center of attention, Holland certainly commits to Cherry’s different phases, putting on the charm during his aw-shucks college days, acting intensely while prepping for and navigating combat, and going sweaty-shaky-frantic-crazy once he becomes a junkie beholden to his cravings. All of that effort fails to engender empathy or engagement with Cherry’s messy plight, but Holland nonetheless fares better than everyone else in this off-the-rails venture, including an unconvincing Bravo, a halfhearted Jack Reynor (as Cherry’s preppie drug dealer known as, ugh, “Pills and Coke”), and assorted other supporting players that overact to middling effect. So exaggerated is Cherry that it frequently feels like parody, although that’s not really what the Russos are going for; the only deliberate attempts at humor come via the names of an Army recruiter (“Mr. Whomever”) and the branches Cherry robs (“Shitty Bank,” “Bank Fucks America”), and are about as funny as they sound.
Those bank monikers might have functioned as part of a larger critique of corrupt (and corrupting) American institutions if Cherry was interested in digging beneath any of its cine-surfaces. Unfortunately, flash and sizzle are the only things propelling this 2.5-hour behemoth toward its harried heist-gone-awry finale and prison-set epilogue. Those closing passages are rife with so many dull twists and clichés that it’s a welcome and amusing relief to see the incarcerated Cherry suddenly sprout a pornstache—a sign that the film has totally lost sight of what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, that bit of unintentional hilarity, which makes the baby-faced Holland look like he’s playing dress-up for a school production of Boogie Nights, is far too little, too late. Aiming for everything-under-the-sun boldness, the Russos’ misfire mimics the moves of its ancestors but fails, in almost every respect, to carve out a unique or captivating identity of its own.