REVIEW – ‘Cherry’ is a catastrophic mess

By virtue of their connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo are now officially the second-most commercially successful film directors of all time behind Steven Spielberg. Naturally, that figure is a touch slanted, given more than half their total box office earnings belong to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. In a bid to break away from the MCU, the Russo brothers offer their first non-Marvel film since 2006’s You, Me and Dupree. Unfortunately, it’s a catastrophic mess.

Drowning in overstylisation that’s more akin to an almost two-and-a-half-hour music video, Cherry may genuinely hurt your brain with its extravagant bag of film school tricks that mostly serve little to no purpose. An endlessly dedicated Tom Holland tries his utmost to save this film from itself, but one terrific performance is not enough to overlook a clunky script, an exhaustive running time, and chaotic direction that gets in the way of a potentially powerful true story.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Nico Walker, Cherry is a turbulent look at the downward spiral of a once-promising 23-year-old lost soul. We first meet our titular Ohian protagonist (Holland) in the midst of a violent bank robbery gone horribly wrong. Strung out and desperate, “Cherry” (his real name is never revealed) has turned to robbing banks to pay for his drug addiction.

But it wasn’t always this way, so we barrel back several years to see how Cherry lost his way. Structured in five parts (entitled “Back to School,” “Basic,” “Cherry,” “Home,” and “Dope Life”), a prologue, and an epilogue, we begin with Cherry’s carefree high school days where the high-achieving teenager meets his one true love, Emily (Ciara Bravo). When Emily breaks his heart during their early college days, Cherry drops out and enlists to serve in Iraq as an Army medic in a bid to find a sense of purpose.

As expected, Cherry’s deployment in Iraq is pure hell, and the soldier returns a broken man with debilitating PTSD and insomnia. What begins as popping a few pills to cope with the pain soon spirals into a crippling opioid addiction. Unsurprisingly, Cherry drags Emily down with him, much to the horror of her doting parents. Surrounding himself with a gang of degenerates and addicts, Cherry has no choice but to turn to a life of crime to pay for his mistakes.

In what may be a career-best performance thus far, Holland is terrific as a tortured young man whose story is sadly all too familiar in America. It’s the kind of transformative turn that would likely lead to awards season buzz, if the film wasn’t dropping so terribly late in the game. While Holland’s shot at Oscar glory will likely come later, there’s so much to admire about his commitment to this emotionally and physically demanding role. It’s harrowing to watch Cherry’s descent into addiction, and Holland handles this mature material with deft skill. He completely grounds this film, which is some sort of miracle, given everything that’s swirling around him.

It’s a mighty shame this is a great performance stuck in a film that is actively working against Holland at every conceivable turn. Cherry plays like five movies rolled into one with a wildly fluctuating tone that left me with the feeling of cinematic whiplash. It’s a film that can’t decide what it is, so it attempts to be everything instead. It’s part cliché coming-of-age rom-com, part generic war epic with a finale that foolishly strives to be a drug addiction cautionary tale and wraps up like a Tarantino-like gangster heist drama.

If you’re thinking none of those film genres organically meld together, you’re not wrong. They don’t. But the Russo brothers giddily throw everything at the wall and hope it all sticks. It doesn’t. All we’re left with is a sloppy mess on the floor. Their nauseatingly endless stylistic choices play like two overly-ambitious film students excitedly trying out every possible tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. Slow-motion sequences, aspect ratio changes, colour saturation and desaturation, black and white scenes with splashes of colour, giant words of dialogue displayed on the screen for no apparent reason. It’s all here and it’s all horribly self-indulgent.

At one point, the camera angle is garishly shot from inside Cherry’s rectum (yep) while he’s given a physical by an army doctor, and it was at this moment that I genuinely wondered what the hell I was watching. There’s simply no rhyme or reason to any of the Russo brothers’ artistic decisions. It’s all so glossily over-produced in post-production that it truly stands in the way of everything Holland is laying down. Every time you think they’re pulling back and settling down, they make another unconscionably stylised move and we’re right back to square one. Frustrating filmmaking is an understatement.

The stilted screenplay by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg also does the film no favours, particularly by presenting Cherry’s life in choppy, episodic fashion. Many of the lines Holland is handed to deliver are woefully inauthentic and practically every scene is damaged by atrocious, awkward dialogue that’s terribly amateur. Their writing of Emily is particularly hollow, which is surprising coming from two female screenwriters. Emily is almost an afterthought in the plot and poor Bravo is left with little to work with but a cliché love interest with no substance or depth.

In the film’s closing chapters, the Russo brothers thankfully ease up on the style and focus more on the substance. It’s far too late the save the film from the chaos that preceded it, but when the film hones in on the poignancy, the pain, and the pertinency of Cherry’s opioid addiction, it finally soars. This is a crisis affecting thousands of American lives, and the film was a major opportunity to say something relevant and necessary. It seems that was the Russo brothers’ intention all along. And they occasionally searingly hit the mark. However, they consistently become lost in their own self-importance to let this element of the story rightfully take centre stage. Cut a lot of the fat and strip away the flash and there could be a masterpiece hiding here somewhere.

Overstylised to the point of absolute exhaustion, Cherry is already one of the most disappointing films of the year. The gripping story was ripe for the picking, but it’s abundantly clear the Russo brothers were not the filmmakers to tell it. They clearly want to be taken seriously and make a Scorsese-level epic, yet lack the self-control to avoid their penchant for flashy stylism. It’s like an experimental film school project with the budget of a blockbuster. Pretentious, bloated, and overcooked, Cherry is a total misfire.

Distributor: Apple TV+
Cast: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Jeff Wahlberg, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, Kyle Harvey, Pooch Hall
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Producers: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Mike Larocca, Jonathan Gray, Matthew Rhodes, Jake Aust, Chris Castaldi
Screenplay: Angela Russo-Otstot, Jessica Goldberg
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production Design: Philip Ivey
Costume Design: Sara Sensoy
Editor: Jeff Groth
Music: Henry Jackman

Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: 26th February 2021 (U.S.), 12th March 2021 (Apple TV+)