After living years within the Marvel house, how do you escape the Marvel formula? Maybe it’s by tackling what might seem like material of the polar opposite, a gritty addiction drama, perhaps. No matter what, that’s exactly what Anthony and Joe Russo, the go-to duo for many Marvel blockbusters — two Captain America and two Avengers movies, to be exact — have done. Yet what they actually deliver isn’t so far off from such Marvel material. With a runtime (one-hundred-forty-minutes) that’s on par with an Avengers movie, Cherry is a bombastic epic of an “issue” drama that’s about as subtle as the aforementioned Marvel material. Pivoting to such serious grounds, Cherry chronicles two decades of anguish and misfortune in the life of a tortured young man, yet it’s been made with all the restraint and nuance from people attuned to a rigidly formulaic popcorn movie.
While delivering the highest grossing movie of all time, the Russos, when on blockbuster duty, delivered the studio’s house aesthetic decently well, with a slick snappiness. But their approach is an woeful mismatch to Cherry‘s grim source material. Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, Cherry follows an unnamed Army veteran (Tom Holland, who’s credited as playing “Cherry”) who turns to drugs to cope with his trauma and then bank robbing to pay for such drugs. The Russos mainly treat Walker’s lightly fictionalized narrative like an opportunity to work some of their unused stylistic muscles; which often finds the film aggressively expressionistic, with the brothers throwing everything and the kitchen sink aesthetically.
For a while, the two seem content at trying their hand at subpar Scorsese. Cherry begins with one of those “How did I get here” moments, as Holland’s outlaw turns to address the audience during a bank robbery. These breaks of the fourth wall will trade off with a running voice-over commentary as the film rewinds several years to its protagonist’s early days as an Ohio college kid blossoming in love with his campus girlfriend Emily (Ciara Bravo), the sketchily drawn romantic center of his world. If there was anyone wondering how Goodfellas might play if it were narrated by the plastic-bag-loving teen from American Beauty you now have your answer.
Cherry has the checklist type of dramatic shapelessness that often comes with adapting memoir, but with none of the keen specificity. Its script, written by Jessica Goldberg and the directors’ sister, Angele Russo-Otstot, preserves a large scope, unfolding across six chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. But it plays more like a doodle adaptation of a Wikipedia summary, skimming whole paragraphs of incident with big style swings. Once Holland’s vacuous kid decides to enlist, the film shifts into a music-video version of Full Metal Jacket, allowing the Russos to montage through basic training before getting to the battle sequences. Once back in Ohio, Walker’s onscreen surrogate plummets into Trainspotting-lite, running through the highs and lows of “dope life.”
For Holland, the MCU’s youngest star, this is a vicious attack against typecasting. Sliding off both the spidey suit and the boyish innocence of Peter Parker, he gets to curse, jerk off, fire a gun and slide a needle into his arm. Cherry is almost as bleak as last year’s change of pace for the actor, the much better Southern Gothic ensemble drama The Devil All the Time. But in Cherry he doesn’t have an actual character to play — the lack of a name is apropos for such a thin cipher, a guy who seems half-there even before heroin brings him down. Bravo fares worse in a role that becomes more and more thankless as the movie progresses, as Emily glides from dream girl to loyal military wife to zoned-out fiend screeching for a new score. Pulled from the Walker’s pages or not, the dialogue does no one any favors, either: “Basically, I was being a sad, crazy fuck about the horrors I had seen,” Holland bluntly self-diagnoses.
This is a film with no new insight about love, war, trauma, addiction, or America. It blows through these topics on a bender of hyper-stylization, indifferently twisting its largely true story into the weaker shape of other, better movies. By its final stretch, you may begin to wonder if working with a $300 million budget sours your brain or at least kills your capacity to make anything small or remotely real ever again. When the Russos first transitioned from parodic sitcoms (Community) to Marvel, they brought a sense of new energy to the studio. With Cherry, their reach for seriousness has seemingly brought them back to parodic world, just without the self-awareness. For all its frenzied aesthetic ambition, Cherry‘s blend of rigid clichés and broad dramatic shapelessness leads only for it to be glossily hollow.
Cherry is available to stream on Apple TV+