Cherry: An Exhausting Exercise in Style Over Substance
I wrote a few weeks ago about the immediate apprehension I’m stricken with when a film starts with voiceover. As I said about The World to Come, it’s not an inherent negative; rather, it’s all about how the tool is deployed and utilized, and how too often it feels like a crutch more than a complement. Alas, Tom Holland’s disembodied voice in the opening scenes of Cherry is indeed a harbinger of the excruciating 140 minutes to come, an early example of the many filmmaking clichés that Joe and Anthony Russo end up throwing at the audience to try and dress their film up as something more than the surface level pastiche it ultimately is.
Based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Cherry never lets you forget that it’s an adaption: from constant narration to fourth wall-breaking to a seven-part structure, complete with title cards, the film appears to have almost no understanding of why certain literary devices might work well on the page but not translate to the screen. That’s not to say there isn’t cinematic potential here, but the Russos — best known for their work in television comedy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe — don’t seem to have a handle on tonally tricky material. Cherry’s your typical rise and fall, but the sheer breadth of the story mostly results in narrative whiplash as Tom Holland’s title character makes his way from college dork to combat medic to drug addict to bank robber in what seems like both the blink of an eye and an interminable slog.
Walker’s book has been labeled as possibly the “first great opioid epidemic novel” (and that may well be the case), an aspect of the story that has been played up immensely in the roll-out of the film, but Cherry barely manages to be even a surface level exploration of PTSD or opioid addiction or the treatment of veterans in America — elements that are all there on the project’s face and worthy of deeper examination. Instead of engaging with the substance, the Russos go for broke on style, taking a kitchen sink approach to a story that demands at least some degree of thoughtfulness. The camera is constantly in motion but without a sense of purpose, slow motion abounds and only serves to add to an already lengthy runtime, and — in what is perhaps the moment where the film lost me entirely — there’s a sequence in the middle where the aspect ratio shifts for no coherent thematic or narrative reason. Even when given opportunities to flex their muscles in the film’s more potentially visceral setpieces, the Russos’ filmmaking falls flat: combat sequences feel entirely weightless and bank robberies are rushed and haphazard.
For what it’s worth, Holland makes the most of what he’s given — as one of our most charismatic young actors, he continues to show flashes of his superstar ability. But if he wanted to showcase what he could do outside the confines of the MCU, this isn’t the way to do it: I won’t presume to know the Russos’ motivations, but if this is their attempt to prove that they can helm adult dramas just as competently as they can Avengers movies it backfires spectacularly, with Holland caught up in the wake of a script and a style that forces him to work in a register that not even our greatest actors can sustain over the course of an entire feature.
In the end, Cherry feels like nothing more than an exercise in sampling other, better films about these weighty topics and slathering it all in a marinade of empty edginess and camera tricks. It’s one thing to draw inspiration from the likes of Dog Day Afternoon, The Hurt Locker, First Blood, Full Metal Jacket, and Requiem for a Dream (just to name a few), it’s another to simply skim those movies’ visual Cliffs Notes, throw ‘em together, and call it a day. To one degree or another, those films all elicit feelings about the world outside the boundaries of the screen; unfortunately Cherry merely elicits the feeling that you’d rather be watching one of those films instead.