Some filmmakers start out small and dream of hitting the big time with a major studio contract. Once they’ve reached that pinnacle, which would no doubt have included great compromise and a whittling away of their authentic voices, some dream of scaling back and making a little indie. Take the Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony, for example. This Cleveland duo started out their feature directing careers with such little seen low-budget works as Pieces and Welcome To Collinwood. They rose through the ranks and have now made the most successful box office film to date with Avengers: End Game. With what seems like a drive to return to their Ohio roots, they’ve made Cherry, based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel and adapted by their sister Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg.
The trouble is, this 15 years spanning story of a young college dropout who reacts to getting dumped by his girlfriend by becoming an Army medic, returns home with severe PTSD, develops an addiction to opioids, and resorts to robbing banks to feed the beast, does not play out as an intimate little Sundance gem. It’s as if the Russos told the studios, “We’ve made you ALL the money, so now let us use ALL of the toys to make something meaningful.” Now don’t get me wrong, Cherry is a stunning looking film. Every shot has boldness, life, and energy. The production design, the early aughts period detail, even the look of its Cleveland streets are all eye-popping. As a person who grew up near Cleveland, I can attest to its perfectly captured brown brick/grey skies aesthetic. Despite its epic, nearly two and half hour running time, it never drags. Tom Holland and his incredible costars shine. You could watch this film without sound and think it’s the most cinematic, perfect movie you’ve ever seen.
So what’s the problem? It’s all just too much. Playing like a “Greatest Hits” mashup of Goodfellas, Full Metal Jacket, Zero Dark Thirty, Trainspotting, and Dog Day Afternoon, to name a few, Cherry goes big, but doesn’t go home. Using impressionism, surrealism, varying aspect ratios, voiceovers, bold chyron messaging, and every type of drone, dolly, and crane possible, we don’t so much as get inside our main character’s head as watch it explode all over the screen. It’s certainly a valid approach, and it sets it apart from so many uninspired independent films of its ilk, but it results in holding its emotional resonance at a distance. You may chuckle when our unnamed lead character, nicknamed “Cherry”, robs banks called Shitty One or Capitalist None, but it feels like showing off instead of making us really feel for the human beings at its center. At its core, this film wants to tackle the very serious subject of addiction, yet the style gets in the way. One of my favorite films on the topic, Sid And Nancy, had one flight of fancy in which the title characters kissed in an alley as garbage fell down on them from the sky, but kept things mostly real otherwise. Cherry is 141 minutes of garbage falling down from the sky.
Again, that may sound harsh, but I don’t blame the Russo Brothers for wanting to strut their stuff. They clearly have talent, and I’d love to see a film in which they learned to calm the fuck down. They certainly get great work from their cast. Tom Holland gives a heartbreaking, intimate performance filled with such vulnerability that you wish the camera would stop swooshing around him long enough for us to experience his great empathy better. Same goes for Ciara Bravo as his girlfriend who goes way down the rabbit hole of addiction with him. She starts out as your standard issue manic pixie dream girl only to erupt into palpable ferocity as things grow dire. Jack Raynor brings some much-needed comic relief as their preppy drug dealer known only as “Pills & Coke”.
The film keeps raising the question of whether or not Holland’s character deserves to have friends, a partner, love. It’s one we’ve seen before in films about addicts, yet this one stumbles badly in its final act, which amounts to a yadda-yadda montage during an incredibly important transition for our lead, only to dump him out the other side of it with an oddly tone-deaf, treacly final moment. They would have earned those final few seconds had we not been subjected to a decade-long chapter distilled into a few minutes of screen time. You’ll want to yell, “Run!” to someone onscreen instead of thinking, “Awwwwww”.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Cherry is playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.