A film review by Craig J. Koban March 23, 2021

CHERRY j
 

2021, R, 140 mins.

Tom Holland as Cherry  /  Ciara Bravo as Emily  /  Jack Reynor as Pills & Coke  /  Michael Rispoli as Tommy  /  Jeffrey Wahlberg as Jimenez  /  Forrest Goodluck as James Lightfoot  /  Michael Gandolfini as Cousin Joe  /  Thomas Lennon as Father Whomever

Directed by the Russo Brothers  /  Written by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg, based on the book by Nico Walker

ORIGINAL FILM

CHERRY is one of those rare kind of films that contains a virtuous performance that's completely capsized by unchecked directorial hubris run afoul.  

This Apple Original Film comes from directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who have spent much of their recent filmmaking career helming some of the biggest blockbusters of all time in the last two AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA sequels (with THE WINTER SOLDIER still remaining for me to be one of the finest MCU efforts to date).  Going the smaller and more modest route here post-super hero boom is commendable for the brothers in tackling an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical book of the same name by Nico Walker.  That, and the duo nabbed another MCU-alumni in Tom Holland, who gets an opportunity to really sink his teeth into something more gritty and adult than his wall crawler cinematic alter ego.  Holland is superb in CHERRY, but the Russos utterly betray their star's work by making one of the most hyper aggressively stylized films I've seen in awhile; sometimes it's engaging and exhilarating, whereas most of the time the director's efforts come of as self-indulgently showy and distracting.  What a messy film of contradictions.   

The story contained within is not without its intrigue, though.  In real life Walker served as an army medic in Iraq, having gone on over 250 combat missions.  When he returned to life back on the home front he suffered from horrendous PTSD that was tragically undiagnosed, leading him to becoming addicted to soothing pain killers and later heroin.  With money tight to support his massive drug bills, Walker decided to rob multiple banks in the Cleveland area, which eventually led to his arrest and 11-year prison sentence.  While in the slammer, he penned CHERRY (which was spawned from a well publicized BussFeed profile on him that peaked interests from publishers).  Walker's book attempted - as the film version does - to paint a picture of the plight of American veterans and how they succumb to crime and addictions when little opportunities are present for them at home and away from war.  All of this has the makings of a compelling film, but so much of what's covered her in Russos' treatment rings so hollowly, mostly because they favor a style over substance strategy to the point of frustration.   

 

 

CHERRY begins in the early 2000s with the rather rosy and budding romance between Cherry (Holland) and Emily (Ciara Bravo), which ends with massive heartache for him when she decides to dump him. With very little career ambitions and no hopeful prospects in sight (and suffering from post-break-up depression), Cherry decides to nut up and shut up and joins the army.  Much to his frustration, Emily very soon reveals to him that she still loves him and wants to stay with him, which is very tricky now considering that he's about to head out to boot camp and then probably a tour of duty overseas.  He makes it through basic training and is very quickly shipped to Iraq, where he learns first hand the true horrors of combat. When he returns back home and into Emily's arms he's a different person altogether, mentally traumatized by war and having great difficulty attaining any level of normalcy.  A routine doctor's prescription for opioids is a game changer for Cherry, mostly because it leads him down a dreary rabbit hole of further chemical addiction.  Knowing that he can't keep this insanely expensive junky lifestyle up on a simple 9 to 5 job, Cherry decides to become a bank robber, and his world predictably gets turned violently upside down. 

Tom Holland is a far better actor than her perhaps gets credit for.  He's solid playing his high profile role of Spider-Man for the MCU, to be sure, but in films like last year's THE DEVIL MAY CARE and now CHERRY he's given a refreshing opportunity to play ruthlessly against his nice boy type to inhabit a compulsive addict that engages in a whole lot of self-destructive behavior that hurts him and those in his inner circle.  There's something liberating about seeing Holland throw all inhibitions to the wind and fully embrace such a toxic personality, and he certainly gives a deep dive committed performance here to stand up and take notice of.  Also, the Russos deserve some props as well for not taking the road most traveled approach to their careers post-AVENGERS: ENDGAME.  After making one of the most expensive costing and financially successful comic book entertainments of all time, the Russos could have done just about anything with their careers.  In many respects, their taking on something more low key, but dramatically resonant (like Holland himself) in tackling material that aims to critique the Iraq War and the horrendous post-war treatment of vets back home (and for streaming versus a theatrical release model) is kind of an appreciable creative gamble.  And CHERRY could not be anymore diametrically different from the Russos' MCU work, that much is clear.  

But, wow, their creative discipline is completely AWOL here.  There's nothing wrong, per se, with a film having a unique aesthetic all to its own, but CHERRY is - like its main character is on drugs - so full of itself and high on its own overbearingly flashy visuals.  It's such a strange push-pull effect on display: The Russos want to dig deep into this grounded portrayal of war and the psychological scars that is left in its wake, but the overall style the filmmakers use here is so outlandish, so in-your-face, and so ultimately numbing on the senses that the film becomes a strain on the eyes and an endurance test to endure.  The Russos throw everything but the kitchen sink up on screen in hopes that it will all coalesce together and stick to a landing.  We get voiceover narration tracks, slow-motion, freeze frame shots, would-be sly ands colorful dialogue that attempts (I think) self-aware satire, title cards blasted on screen, and, hell, plunging the camera literally everywhere for cheap effect (in one instance, it peers out of Holland's anus...not joking).  The more CHERRY was literally thrust on me in an overpoweringly off-putting manner the more superficial and empty minded it felt.  There's something this film wants to say about important themes of addiction, economic disparity, crime, war, and failing to acclimate to life outside of combat, but the Russos seem more inclined to make CHEERY look cool than about something.  What.  A.  Shame.   

And at a punishing 141 minutes, CHERRY is a punishing experience that never once seems to earn its bloated length.  On top of that, there's nothing really anything new that the Russos are bringing to the genre table in terms of war films or chronicling the after effects of said war.  We get a tremendous amount of portrayed human suffering and cruelty here, but nothing in the way of thoughtful commentary about the lack of support that service people receive (or don't receive) when their tours are over.  When you also start to scrutinize the characters beyond Cherry, it becomes abundantly clear that there's virtually no one here that has any appropriate level of substantial depth or dimension.  As is the case with film's of CHERRY's ilk, the female characters are offensively not treated very well, especially for the manner that Emily, for example, is portrayed more as an object of desire and someone to possess.  Ciara Bravo is a solid actress and she deeply invests in her go-for-broke performance, but the script horribly leaves her in the dust.  She's more of a plot device and strange cipher than a well realized love interest.  The whole arc of Cherry and Emily is indeed pathetically sad and tragic, but deep down it's hard to feel any sympathy for these people because the movie built around them wallows in superficial surface pleasures as opposed to finding some level of dramatic urgency and pathos. 

I read that that Russos paid Walker a cool million bucks for his book and story rights (that's what mad Marvel money affords you!), but where was the investment made in terms of ensuring that his life is translated into something thoroughly engaging, thought provoking, and worth our viewing investment?  By the time CHERRY finished I was left with the nagging sensation that I would have rather watched an enriching documentary about Walker's troubled times than what the Russos haphazardly throw in their feature film mixing bowl here.  Poor Tom Holland, as alluded to, gives a tirelessly dedicated performance that undeniably will turn heads, but he sure is destabilized by the Russos' highly questionable handling of the material built around his character.  CHERRY has the initial veneer of something dark, edgy and unnervingly relevant, but in reality is a chaotically tone deaf piece of Oscar bait.  Outside of its formulaic war is hell messaging and Holland's superlative work, there's just not much substance on display in this tale.  This is one of the more slickly made bad films featuring talent in front of and behind the camera that I've seen in awhile, and maybe - just maybe - the Russos should stick with their MCU day jobs. 

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