Joe and Anthony Russo’s Cherry has its moments. But the film, an adaptation of Nico Walker’s hit 2018 novel of the same name, is, for the most part, a misfire and a missed opportunity. The Russo brothers, best known of late for helming a spate of Avengers epics — most recently 2019’s Endgame — bought the rights to Walker’s autobiographical bestseller within months of its release, for reasons anyone who’s familiar with the novel or its backstory can easily guess.
Cherry — Walker’s novel — is a topically wide-ranging, tonally flexible, semi-autobiographical story that was written, at the encouragement of an independent publisher, while Walker was serving time in prison. How he got there has itself been the subject of much fascination; it’s also the story that Walker’s novel fictionalizes. From 2005 to 2006, he served as an Army medic in Iraq, going on more than 250 combat missions. He came home and fell into a desperate rut of opiate addiction. To fund his habit, he robbed 10 banks around Cleveland in a span of four months, beginning in December 2010. He was arrested in April 2011, pleaded guilty in 2012, and was given an 11-year sentence. In 2013, while Walker was behind bars in the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky, Buzzfeed published a profile summarizing all of the above — the public notice that caught a publisher’s eye. In 2018: the novel. In 2021: the movie, now streaming on AppleTV+.
A whirlwind, in other words. And an opportunity for a filmmaker to depict a robust, eventful narrative from almost every side. The story, with all its sticky interaction between real life, novelization, and the ensuing publicity of it all, practically begs for self-awareness. And filmmakers like the Russos, with their roots in shows like Arrested Development and Community, have — the movie proves — noticed exactly this, and capitalized on it. You can’t really begrudge the pair for taking this particular leap, succumbing to the itch to remind us that they’re good for more than making mega-million superhero movies. The danger is that the movie legitimatizes the inevitable rejoinder: Are they?
Cherry, which stars Tom Holland as the titular college kid-turned-Army medic-turned-opiate addict-turned-serial bank robber (the film doesn’t track the turn to bestselling author), is a knowingly segmented, compartmentalized worm of a movie, slithering through its drama with a Look at me! fervor that undermines what might have been good about it. Tell someone you’re making a film that combines a youthful romance, a bloody war story (up through and including the traumatized aftermath), opiate addiction, a streak of bank robberies, and a prison sentence into one film-length narrative and they’ll likely tell you you’re doing too much, it’s too many things at once, it isn’t realistic. The backstory assuages those doubts with tidy conclusiveness. Not only is all of it grounded in reality, it’s of the moment. Iraq, the opiate epidemic, a brooding sense of financial crisis. Short of police violence and #MeToo, it’s got all the makings of being America: The Movie, told middle-America style, which is to say — from the vantage of Hollywood — insincerely.
It’s all a trap. Watching Cherry is like watching the Russos get set up by their own set-up. Because each one of these threads, these periods of Cherry’s life, is not only at risk of being condescended to, fashioned into a scuzzy “hot topic”; each is also, dangerously, a distinct, viable genre of movie. And the Russos make the error of leaning into the genre-ness of it all, with a knowing self-awareness that reveals itself to know very little, in fact. The war section is a war movie, a practical ode to the likes of Kubrick, but with none of cynicism toward precisely this approach that copping that auteur’s style should probably demand. The drug movie is the saccharine afterbirth of legendary movies like The Panic in Needle Park: all substance abuse, yet stripped of the substance.
The movie is so overbearingly high on its own fizzy, clever stylishness that it strands the heart of its own story. And it strands otherwise interesting actors, like Holland, Ciara Bravo (as Emily, Cherry’s sweetheart), and Jack Reynor (as Pills and Coke, whose name speaks for itself). It isn’t that Holland, in particular, doesn’t have the goods. Maybe he doesn’t; I suspect he does. But Cherry doesn’t give him a chance to make a strong case for himself either way. It keeps getting in the way. The movie’s mélange of genres and tones are so lazily overt that Holland can’t help but come off as a little too green, too implausible, to be the strand holding so many of the filmmakers’ whims together. Isn’t this story, in itself, enough of a challenge? Holland comes off less as a promising young actor stepping up to the plate of a titanic, wide-ranging role than like something goofier — Peter Parker trying on big boy pants. Holland is better than that. Whether he’s cut out for what this role demands remains to be seen, but might have been more evident in a movie which — even if we kept the Russos overarching concept intact — dialed back the zealousness and gave Holland room to breathe. What’s missing is the sense that any of the Russo’s tools — the shifting aspect ratios, the script’s unjustified assaults on the fourth wall, the emphatically zany drug use, the emphatically BOOMING war scenes — are being deployed in service of something greater than, “See?” Holland emerges as merely one more tool in their kit, as overwhelmed and poorly used as the rest.
Walker’s novel was a son of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, to say nothing of where it fits in the scheme of growing literature about America’s 21st-century wars, so much of which has tried to define what the American war novel can even look like post-Vietnam. Any power or truth in that context, let alone Walker’s novel — let alone the severity of the additional touch points, like opiate addiction — has been abandoned by the movie. It gets vomited onto the screen with grim, unprocessed opportunism. Cherry feels less directed than brandished, thrust in our faces as if its makers have some point to prove — about themselves. The film’s one searing moment — a catastrophic moral climax in which Cherry is forced, under circumstances of his own making, to choose between taking a man to the hospital or letting him die — evinces the gravity of this error. So much of what this story is about, so much of why it matters, comes down to the tragedy of that choice, the ugly desperation of it, the long throughline that runs from war trauma, to the traumas of returning home and lacking care, to insecurities of class and identity, the seeming evaporation of options, that can beset a man like Cherry. Sure, other Iraq veterans can (and have) fared better. This man has not. In a story full of low points and regret, this scene — low on hyperactivity, high on sentiment — capably depicts something close to rock bottom. It is not a flawless scene. But it feels as close to honest as the film gets. Unfettered from any real wrangling with the movie’s ideas, yes, but sincere in its gravity.
That honesty cannot be allowed to last. There are more tricks to deploy, more skills to impress upon us. There’s a whole ending to completely botch; the Russos are nothing if not committed to the bit. And so: Cherry’s 10-plus-year prison stint, which concludes the film, gets sweepingly summarized in a wordless, cloying, pan-tastic montage that bypasses all detail, all character, all sense of what is ultimately, time-wise and perhaps even spiritually, the most substantial chunk of Cherry’s life. Given their infelicity with so much else on display in Walker’s story, maybe we’re better off not seeing what the Russos might have done with the “prison movie” chapter of that story. But of all the things to minimize — this? The long arc of directorial self-satisfaction bends toward, not justice, but easy redemption. It’s as if the Russos are conceding the already-obvious. We never promised you the story of a life. All that really mattered was the freak show.