There’s a lot to recommend about Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Cherry” (now available in select theaters and on Apple TV+ beginning Friday, March 12). There’s just as much to pan about it. I’m not going to dogpile on “Cherry” to the same extent a lot of my critic colleagues have, but I’m not here to heap praise upon it either.
Tom Holland stars as our nameless protagonist. We see him as a college student, young lover, soldier, junkie and serial bank robber. (The movie derives its title from a nickname Holland’s character receives during basic training.)
When we’re introduced to Cherry he’s a Cleveland-based college student who pals around with his buds James Lightfoot (Forrest Goodluck of last year’s “Blood Quantum” and “I Used to Go Here”) and Cousin Joe (Michael Gandolfini, son of James and soon to be seen playing young Tony Soprano in “The Many Saints of Newark”). Initially, Cherry’s drug use (mostly Ecstasy) is played for laughs as opposed to being disquieting. Cherry takes a shine to Emily (Ciara Bravo) even though he’s got a girlfriend named Madison (Kelli Berglund) at another university. Cherry and Emily begin dating and their relationship is great until it’s not – rashly prompting him to drop out of school and enlist in the Army. The young couple rekindle their romance and get married prior to Cherry reporting to boot camp.
During training and through deployment Cherry befriends fellow medic Jimenez (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of Donnie and Mark). Both men enter the service through desperation and it’s an ill fit for each of ‘em. They abhor their time in Iraq. Upon returning home from a two-year bit Cherry is awarded a Medal of Valor, reunites with Emily and develops post-traumatic stress disorder. To help quell his PTSD Cherry begins popping Oxycodone like Skittles, which eventually leads him to heroin. Emily, sick of Cherry’s bullshit, follows him down the rabbit hole prompting financial ruin for them both. Desperate, Cherry takes to robbing banks to ensure they can keep needles in their arms.
“Cherry” does a lot right. The Russo brothers are from Cleveland, they opted to do most of their shooting there and the film feels true to the area. I enjoyed a lot of the soundtrack which leans heavily on Van Morrison tunes. It’s a good-looking picture as shot by Newton Thomas Sigel, who received an American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement nomination for his work on the film. (I personally would’ve preferred to see his work on Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” recognized.) If there’s one element of the proceedings that works and makes the movie recommendable it’s the performances of Holland and Bravo. The transformation these two undergo from the beginning to the end is pretty staggering with their generally youthful appearances making it all the more heartbreaking.
“Cherry,” which is an adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Jessica Goldberg (of Hulu’s “The Path” and Netflix’s “Away”) and Angela Russo-Otstot (the Russo brothers’ sister), is a tale that deserves telling – the opioid crisis is a serious issue and veterans need to be treated better upon returning to the States. I could simply have opioid fatigue after having already watched “Body Brokers” (the best of these pictures) and “Crisis” this year? But more likely it’s that these filmmakers made missteps in bringing Walker’s work to the screen. Much of the voiceover Holland’s saddled with is eye-rollingly bad. The names of the banks Cherry robs (Shittybank, Bank Fucks America) and the doctor who initially prescribes him oxy (Dr. Whomever as played by “The State” stalwart Thomas Lennon wearing a wig and fake beard that’d befit one of that show’s skits) are so painfully on the nose that I felt like my schnoz had been bashed into my brain. Speaking of being on the nose, playing the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” one scene after Cherry’s squadmates are burnt alive in a Humvee left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. Also, don’t get me started on Cherry’s drug dealer Pills & Coke (Jack Reynor). You know this dude’s a “cunt nugget” (his words, not mine) because when we meet him he threatens to shoot heroin into the mouth of his special needs sister played by Jamie Brewer of “American Horror Story.” Reynor’s an actor I generally dig and respect, but his role is so terribly written and performed one could argue he deserves a return trip to the bear suit.
I get why the Russo brothers employed style over substance with “Cherry.” They likely wanted to separate their project from the glut of other drug pictures. Had it been more stripped-down it likely would’ve felt more rote, but arguably more authentic also. “Cherry” isn’t the Russo brothers’ worst film (I’d debate that’s their debut, “Welcome to Collinwood”), but it’s pretty darned close. They make so many flummoxing decisions … some of them are funny – casting Damon Wayans Jr. as a drill instructor feels like a cheeky continuation of his father’s character in “Major Payne,” the mustache Holland sports late in the picture makes him look like he’s auditioning to play Super Mario … most of them are vexing. There’s even a POV shot from inside a soldier’s anus where a doctor shines a light into it. Perhaps if the Russo brothers had removed their heads from their asses we’d have a better movie? “Cherry” feels like a flick that was directed by Mr. Mackey, the guidance counselor from “South Park” – “War is bad, m’kay? Drugs are bad, m’kay?”