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The Russos Tried to Marvel-ify a Heroin War Drama. It’s a Disaster.

In ‘Cherry,’ Tom Holland does his best to play a young man scarred by war and heroin, but the film (based on the acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel) is too invested in showing off to say anything meaningful

While watching Cherry, the new movie from directors Anthony and Joe Russo that stars Tom Holland, I was convinced that the book it’s based on must be pretty good. I haven’t read Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical 2018 novel, which New York’s Christian Lorentzen praised for “its dark vision of the warping effects of the Iraq War and the opioid epidemic,” but the large amounts of pointless stylish excess that the Russos apply to the story make it fairly obvious that they were working with something substantial and moving — and didn’t have a clue what to do with it.

The more infuriating Cherry gets in its showoff-y tendencies — the more desperate its attempt to pay homage to the movies that influenced the Russos’ approach — the more I wished I could just stop watching and pick up Walker’s book instead. Surely it would have been time better spent.

Even before the pandemic, this young century has seen its share of tragedies thanks to the 9/11 aftermath and the opioid crisis — what Lorentzen refers to as the “twin scourges on American life abroad and at home.” But in trying to tell the sad tale of an everyman Iraq vet who comes home with PTSD so debilitating that only heroin can (temporarily) soothe him, the film doesn’t see the cost of human lives or condemn our collective blindness to people’s pain. Cherry is too busy being Goodfellas, Full Metal Jacket and Requiem for a Dream to worry about such details.

The Russos directed several of the recent Marvel blockbusters, culminating with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and they’re reunited with Tom Holland, who’s proved to be a really likable Peter Parker. But Cherry’s self-consciously cynical tone is meant to be Something Different: a dark, despairing, realistic look at war and addiction that’s far more “meaningful” than some silly superhero antics. There’s nothing wrong with artists switching gears — Holland did this already by appearing in last year’s brutal thriller The Devil All the Time — but Cherry (which opens in theaters Friday before landing on Apple TV+ on March 12th) clues you in pretty quickly on just how serious it thinks its story is by the way it completely overdoes its pseudo-bleak worldview. 

And that starts with the voiceover from our main character, who was unnamed in the book but in the film is identified in the end credits as Cherry. It’s 2007 in rust-belt Ohio, Cherry is 23, and because he’s played by the sweet, baby-faced Holland, we’re supposed to be shocked when we find out the guy robs banks — and that he’s been doing this for a while. How did Cherry get this way? We flash back to 2002, where we see him in college, courting the sharp, funny Emily (Ciara Bravo). Theirs is a whirlwind romance, but months into their relationship Emily announces that she’s going to transfer far away to Montreal, which probably means they should break up. The news devastates Cherry, who makes an impetuous decision to join the army in order to get away from everything. So when she immediately has second thoughts and announces that she’s going to stay put, it’s too late: He already has orders to report to boot camp and will then be shipped off to the Middle East. Cherry and Emily try to make the best of it — he’ll be back in two years, right? — and impulsively get married, investing in the happy future they know awaits them. But we’ve all seen war movies — we know how things work out in those.

In theory, Cherry should be personal to these filmmakers, who grew up in Cleveland, which is where much of the novel is set. (Walker also hails from Cleveland.) But what’s astonishing about the movie is how impersonal it all is. The Russo brothers don’t so much catalog a wayward soul circling the drain as they seem to be ticking off items from their “awesome auteur tricks” bucket list. Nostalgic old Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack to evoke a faux-innocent time? Check. Shifting aspect ratios to indicate how radically different certain parts of Cherry’s life are? Absolutely. Pretentious chapter titles so that the film can pretend to have the artistic heft of a novel? But of course. Ostentatious swooping camera moves whose only function is to make you wonder how the filmmakers did it? Hell yeah. And, most importantly, impassioned opera music playing over upsetting slow-motion images so that we fully appreciate the gravity of the moment? Ya know it! 

Cherry doesn’t miss a chance to make sure you understand that this isn’t just any movie. This here is an epic — a coming-of-age story mixed with a war flick combined with an addiction drama and then spiked with elements of the heist film. This movie has Something to Say About the State of America, and it will borrow from many better movies to try to say it.

Tom Holland as Cherry in Cherry

Once Cherry arrives at boot camp, the film adopts the deadpan nihilism of Full Metal Jacket, and our antihero’s blasé voiceover describing his time there and then in Iraq is meant to be laced with bitterness — it’s the inner monologue of a troubled man who’s seen too much misery too early in his life. Throughout the film, Holland’s naturally empathetic demeanor helps both undercut his character’s growing ugliness and humanize a young man who the Russos view through cautionary-tale clichés. There have been plenty of war films — some of them specifically about the Iraq War (including Thank You for Your Service and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) — that have delved into the battlefield trauma that soldiers take home with them. But the Russo brothers bring nothing new to our understanding of combat, relying on Holland’s expressive face and their “visionary” cinematic flourishes to compensate for where insight and a point of view should have gone.

Eventually, Cherry does make it back to Ohio, where loyal, loving Emily has been waiting for him. Of course, that’s no happy ending, as he starts to slowly come apart, unable to shake the horrors of war. (As a medic, Cherry was immersed in blood, body parts and death.) Before enlisting, he was on antidepressants — Cherry briefly alludes to the fact that he had panic attacks as a kid — and now that he’s home, he discovers that Oxycontin is the only thing that helps him cope. Emily, determined to stand by her husband, gets hooked, too. Soon, they ratchet up to heroin. And, for a while, they’re able to keep it together — just so long as he shows up at her teaching job in the afternoon so she can get a quick hit before the withdrawal nausea takes hold. But we’ve all seen movies about addicts — we know how things work out in those.

Walker wrote the novel in prison, drawing from his life to tell this grim account. (Like the character, he went to war, had PTSD, got addicted to heroin and robbed banks to feed his habit.) “Some of it’s kind of ugly, but I didn’t really have a choice in the material,” the author told the New York Times. The film’s tragic sweep suggests what must have been arresting about Walker’s story and how it serves as a microcosm of the destruction of a whole generation of young people who went off to war and came back shattered, only to land in the middle of our opioid crisis. “I didn’t want to romanticize it or exaggerate to make it more entertaining,” Walker said in that interview. “I wanted to show it for what it really was.” 

Hollad with Ciara Bravo as his wife (and fellow addict) Emily

The great failing of the movie is that it does the exact opposite. The Russo brothers don’t necessarily romanticize Cherry’s turmoil, but they definitely luxuriate in the flashiest conventions of the genres Cherry tangentially intersects. This isn’t a mob movie, but it tries to ape Goodfellas’ nuanced amoralism, which for more than 30 years now has provided filmmakers a cheat-sheet on how to depict a protagonist who lives outside the law. Likewise, Cherry’s war segment and addiction segment plunder from classics, occasionally adopting an operatic sorrow as Cherry and Emily descend into junkie hell. 

But despite the poignancy that Holland and Bravo bring to the proceedings, Cherry rarely feels heartbreaking — instead, the directors simulate emotion through the posturing grandeur of their camera moves and stylistic gimmicks. (The film is 140 minutes long. If all the slow-mo shots were at normal speed, it’d probably be closer to two hours.) Cherry doesn’t just imitate better movies — it also tries to mimic the impact that the harrowing true-life experiences within those movies are meant to represent. The Russo brothers’ consummate skill starts to resemble a polished con job — a way to fake an understanding of the nightmare that Cherry/Walker endured. Because they can’t make any of this resonate beyond the superficial pleasures of Hollywood conventions, all they have left is to entertain us with cinematic clichés.

You don’t make as many Avengers films as Anthony and Joe Russo have without learning how to put together an exciting motion picture, and so it’s no surprise that Cherry zips along with a high level of confidence and technical dexterity. (Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who’s shot some X-Men movies, Drive and Da 5 Bloods, makes every frame electric.) This is a very watchable film. But all that energy and elan only serves to distance us from Cherry’s ordeal — not to mention the sensitivity in Holland’s performance. At its best, Cherry argues that there’s nothing inherently special about this young man — which makes his turn to drugs and, later, crime all the more despairing. He could be any veteran left to his own devices, slowly drowning while no one cares. You’d like to think at least the Russos would care. But they’re too busy setting up their next super-cool shot, bro.