The severity of the United States’ opioid epidemic cannot be overstated, and neither can its crippling impact on active-duty military personnel and veterans. But even well-meaning artists can exploit the trauma with polished, vacant re-creation. In their new film Cherry, now streaming on Apple TV Plus, directors Joe Russo and Anthony Russo cash in their Marvel Cinematic Universe cred to tell a challenging story of American turmoil, only to produce the most extreme version of this shortcoming.
Based on a novel by Nico Walker, Cherry finds the Russos scaling down from the one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame to chronicle the life of an Iraq War vet who stumbles into drugs, then bank robbery, as he attempts to conquer PTSD. Tom Holland, the directing duo’s Spider-Man hire, plays “Cherry” from his first days at college through a stint as an army medic and the aftermath, where a steady supply of heroin erodes him into a career criminal. The guy can’t catch a break, but his blurry-eyed choices put him and his wife Emily (Ciara Bravo) on the fast track to personal destruction.
The story is a personal one to the Russos, who evidently jumped at the chance to adapt Walker’s acclaimed book as a way of grappling with the self-destruction they witnessed growing up in Cleveland. But there’s nothing personal to find at the end of Cherry’s episodic saga. To entangle the viewer with the young veteran’s manic psychology, and to emulate Walker’s ferocious, unromanticized written-from-prison narrative, the directing duo exaggerate every cinematic element, from relentless camera motion to fourth-wall-breaking dialogue and action set-pieces better fit for Captain America. The Russos can’t shake their MCU influences, which turn Cherry into a cringey, über-serious version of Thor’s Endgame arc.
Holland commits to the relentless tone. In college-freshman mode, he does his best Ferris Bueller as he navigates the social scene. As a new Army recruit, he crawls through the mud of basic training, runs like hell through a war zone, and masturbates in a port-a-potty just to feel something. Later, he descends into drug-addled hell, complete with a vomit montage. The screenplay, by the Russos’ sister Angela Russo-Otstot (The Shield) and Jessica Goldberg (The Path), even gives Holland the chance to expound via Big Short-esque monologues about U.S. military action and the art of a robbery. It’s the chainsaw-juggling act of screen performance.
The movie around Holland always demands more. Like a feature-length whip pan, Cherry propels the actor into every pocket of despair without giving him a moment to contemplate the tragedy. When Cherry meets the love of his life, Emily, the connection is frothed by the romantic tropes and ironic distance. “I want to fuck her,” he says in voice-over when they first meet in college. What is his deal? The movie can’t probe the situation enough, and ultimately, there’s no sense that the kid was ever human before stumbling into the quicksand of American service. That leaves Holland to represent the abstract of one of America’s tragic flaws instead of finding the human core of a victim. It’s an unattainable goal.
Off the impossibly complex set-pieces of Endgame, the Russos’ approach to Cherry is an amateurish shock to the system. To sustain Cherry’s life-spanning meltdown, the brothers rely on frenzied direction that never feels motivated or consistent. A simple dialogue scene employs a set of gliding camera moves. Scenes of drug use feel like a paint-by-numbers Trainspotting rehash. The bank robberies are overlit like MacGruber parodying Michael Bay movies. When the Russos swoop over Cherry’s barracks to a God’s-eye view, seeing soldiers trapped in the system like mice in a maze, it’s more befuddling than substantive. If there’s deeper meaning to suss out from the choices, they’re zipped past in favor of the next hurdle for Cherry to jump. The result is a movie that’s barreling forward at a clip, but consistently stalling in sections that hinge on the addict’s interior, resulting in a frustrating 141-minute runtime.
The Russos honed their sense of humor on sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community, and brought calibrated comedic timing to the Marvel movies. Cherry is also peppered with dark humor that, while likely making sense on paper as a way to puncture the miserablism, only adds to the jumble. The Iraq War section is the most convoluted one: The Russos lean into the dysfunction of the situation by making Cherry’s commanding officers look like clowns running the circus, and soon enough, the conflict rears its explosive head. But even on the battlefield, as Cherry races to rescue his friends, crisscrossing tones leave shots of bleeding-out bodies and mounds of intestines playing like cutaway gags rather than harrowing images of war. A movie that goes out of its way to shoot a rectal exam from inside someone’s anus requires a perspective, even a twisted one, to make it all palatable.
That overinvestment in self-aware style bleeds into the script, where everything feels like A Movie. The narration to camera comes and goes, and the direction can’t connect the dots of Holland’s omniscient perspective and the present terror Cherry is facing. The clumsy dialogue also hampers the rest of the cast, who can’t bring their paper-thin characters off the page. A scene where Emily, in just a bra, tells Cherry, “You never have to be sorry about the way that you feel,” feels emblematic of the big issue: the foundational reality of Cherry begins and ends with movies. There are moments where the issues fall away and the movie entertains. When Cherry pivots to robbery, the Russos pivot to heist-movie homage, and the crime streak is a black-comedy hoot thanks to his two goon friends (the perfectly cast Jack Reynor and Jeff Wahlberg).
But ultimately, everything in Cherry is a trope, and everything rings false. The rom-com glow of Cherry’s relationship with Emily dissolves into a high-school-play version of Requiem for a Dream. The bank-heist-filled final act carries none of the weight engendered by Cherry’s time in the military, as if each version of Holland is some Cloud Atlas-like variation on the past. The Russos’ fatal choice is to imagine the roller-coaster life of a single man like an ensemble superhero epic. They excelled with plotting the geography of a cosmic time-travel-enabled heist, but burrowing into the fear, thrill, confusion, and desperation of a life hooked on heroin eludes them.
Cherry is out now in theaters and on Apple TV Plus.