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‘Cherry’ Review: An inspiration slurry

The Russo Brothers spend so much effort emulating their favorite movies they forget to make one of their own.

Tom Holland holding a dollar bill with "I have a gun" written on it in 'Cherry'.
(Image: © Apple)

Our Verdict

'Cherry's disparate inspirations never congeal into a satisfying whole.

For

  • 🍒Tom Holland is giving his all to this role.
  • 🍒Engaging momentary cinematography.

Against

  • 🍒Pick a tone. Any tone. Please.
  • 🍒The pacing is either frantic or arduous without any middle ground.
  • 🍒Is there a point to this story, or are we just recounting a series of events?

It’s easy to understand the appeal in making a film like Cherry. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker, it lays out a compelling story that follows the life of one troubled young man through the greatest hits of the worst the George W. Bush years had to offer us. There’s a lot of drama inherent to Walker’s fictionalized remembrances, and it’s just the kind of role that any young actor would jump at the opportunity to sink their teeth into. And this is certainly Tom Holland’s show, with the writing, cinematography, and editing working in coordinated effort to highlight just how hard Holland’s working to give us this character’s blood, sweat, and tears. But somewhere in the process, it seems the directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo, fresh off the complex cinematic achievement of Avengers: Endgame, lost the thread of what exactly they wanted their movie to say.

Holland is credited as “Cherry,” though the film never deigns to call his character by any name whatsoever, a stylistic choice that harkens back to the personal nature of the novel but feels like an eccentricity here. As a college student, he falls in love with Emily (Ciara Bravo), a young woman who struggles with the concept of permanent love. When she announces that she needs to break up with Cherry, he decides to enlist in the army, only to discover after enlisting that Emily has changed her mind and wants to give their relationship another try. This portion of the film is presented in highly stylized shots that freeze actors in place while the camera moves around and has Cherry constantly break the fourth wall, which is a fine stylistic choice that only becomes later undermined by the film’s lack of presentational consistency.

This really comes into focus when Cherry goes to boot camp, where the farcical visual symbolism and attention-grabbing edits tip over into surrealism, but then it comes right back down to realism once Cherry is dropped into Iraq and experiences trauma that plagues him with PTSD. Editing on the film reportedly occurred during shooting so that the Russos could rewrite and reshoot on the fly, which sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice it leaves the disparate acts feeling like they belong in entirely different movies, particularly as it becomes obvious that there is no overarching vision for what this film is about or who it is for.

This only becomes further complicated as the film dives into its second half, which finds the reunited Cherry and Emily slipping into heroin addiction and, eventually, brings Cherry to the point of robbing banks to support their habit and pay back their dealer (Jack Reynor).  By this point the film is simply exhausting, as the heavy-handed darkness of Cherry’s spiral completely overshadows prior eccentricities in favor of a punishing slog. There are moments of absurdist levity, but it mostly falls flat as this final act drags any personality the film had across the pavement until it’s nothing more than skeletal structure.

It’s a saving grace that Holland is extremely committed to rolling with the emotional roller coaster of this character, selling his consistent every-boy persona even as the film gesticulates wildly around him. But his relatability seems to be the only thing the Russos can hang their hat on, because every supporting character has little to no dimension beyond how they serve to further the plot or in how Cherry reacts to them. The closest Holland gets to a complementary acting partner is Ciara Bravo, who keeps up with him in the stressful antagonism of a troubled, drug-addled relationship, but Emily has almost no internal life outside of her emotional reliance on Cherry, simply making her the stock archetype we spend the most time pretending we’re getting to know.

But even if it had writing to support more than just one central character, Cherry just doesn’t know what it’s trying to say with its broad swath of themes and motifs. Is this a story about toxic masculinity and how it poisons relationships? Sure, until the military tangent transforms that thread into a commentary on military excess before dropping the thread entirely as PTSD and drug abuse become the primary antagonist. Is this, instead, a story about the institutional failings of a society that sends confused young men off to war and refuses to help them cope with their trauma upon their return? Notes of that theme resonate too, but the film has so much preamble that it fails to create a convincing throughline.

Cherry takes inspirations from Fight Club, Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead, and Requiem for a Dream to put them in a blender for a punishing two hours and twenty minutes, but instead of congealing into a satisfying whole, they simply create sequential layers of clashing flavors that make you want to lie down from the effort of chugging it all in one sitting.

Cherry opens theatrically on February 26, 2021 before premiering on Apple TV+ on March 12, 2021.