REVIEW: Cherry [2021]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 140 minutes
    Release Date: March 12th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Apple TV+
    Director(s): Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
    Writer(s): Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg / Nico Walker (novel)

You don’t have to ever be sorry for the way you feel.

There’s a heavy scene towards the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo‘s Cherry wherein an obviously traumatized Emily (Ciara Bravo) subconsciously botches an attempt at saying goodbye for good to her boyfriend (Tom Holland‘s nameless protagonist). The script (written by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg) very quickly glossed over the young woman’s domestic abuse-created PTSD that has her ready to flee after he tells her he loves her (treating it more as a catalyst for why he joins the army than a crucial piece to her backstory) so we can move towards a darkly humorous throwaway role played by the always entertaining Michael Rispoli. His Tommy is drunk in the restaurant where Holland works, loudly asking customers whether they have the guts to blow a stranger’s brains out.

It’s funny and tragic—especially considering its ham-fisted relevance to the fact Holland is about to go to Iraq without knowing the answer to that question. Before we can let the weight of that realization sink in, however, the two men are hopping in Tommy’s car to barely make it home alive. Holland’s character ends the scene saying, “I never saw him again.” And he’s telling the truth as far as the film is concerned. We never do spy Tommy again and the Russo Brothers never mine the psychological impact of what he says either. So why have him on-screen for those two minutes? Why have a lot of the comedy that’s put on-screen during a bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime? I’m honestly unsure since most of it feels inconsequential.

When you look at the praise bestowed upon the source material, however, you have to believe it worked on the page. Nico Walker‘s debut novel is billed as a funny and heartbreaking semi-autobiographical tome written while the author served time for armed robbery (he started using the profits of Cherry‘s sales to repay the banks he held up even before earning parole in 2019). The film attempts to follow suit, but it never quite finds sure enough footing to deliver both emotions simultaneously—instead seemingly shifting from comedy to drama on a whim. We laugh when we notice the Army recruiter’s name is “Whomever” and feel the crippling horror of a desert explosion’s aftermath, but their relationship is incongruous. It’s as if two films are fighting for attention.

The result is the perpetual undermining of whatever was effective either by negating it or stealing focus from it. The “Whomever” stuff (it continues with Thomas Lennon‘s doctor and the generic or disparaging names of the banks Holland eventually robs) is pretty funny at first, but its prevalence starts to place importance upon it beyond mere gag. Suddenly I found myself wondering about its purpose as commentary since the depictions of war and the opioid crisis are unmistakably critical, but nothing is ever truly said about each. They are simply back-drops to the narrative. They’re excuses (albeit real and harmful to countless lives) so that Holland can feel sorry for himself and Emily can become so worn thin that she joins his descent into heroin addiction.

What then should we do? Are we supposed to care about their plight? Are we supposed to feel sorry that they’ve become victims to a nightmare in which so many Americans fall prey? Probably. But that constant thread of acerbic comedy prevents it from happening. The one-liners and humorous side characters (Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, and Jack Reynor) fail to augment the stakes and in actuality lessen them by making it all seem like a joke. And the text is to blame thanks to a sequence where Holland’s soldier questions the veracity of his situation in boot camp and pulls the curtain on his superiors’ over-compensating machismo. He questions whether any of this is real and therefore so do we. Maybe he’s an unreliable narrator heading towards clarity.

I wish he were because then the weird superficiality of everything that occurs would be explained. Without it we’re just watching two characters destroy their lives through a glossy, mainstream cinema filter. There’s no grit to their plight once Holland starts robbing banks without so much as hiding his face. There’s no worry that something horrible might happen to him despite people close to him having their lives ruined or worse. How can we pity him when he seemingly has a horseshoe up his butt that constantly allows him to avoid facing the consequences of his actions? We’re supposed to empathize with him and hope he and Emily can turn things around, but we can’t without fear that they won’t. It’s all so repetitively boring instead.

It’s too bad because Holland is trying his best to transcend a script that’s constantly holding him back. He goes for broke in some harrowing moments where hope seems lost and yet the robotic machinations of his circumstances ultimately overshadow his pain. Why? Because the Russo Brothers don’t allow us to live within it. We aren’t allowed to feel the impact of what happened because they’re moving so quickly onto the next thing or flippantly dismissing it with a witty line of dialogue that tries to be biting despite just sounding like the whine of someone who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening. Where so many critics said Walker’s book could only be written by someone who lived it, the film very noticeably lacks that same authenticity.

Who knows, though? Maybe the book is equally as meandering in its comic asides and low stakes drama despite high stakes scenarios—I haven’t read it. All I know for sure is that this adaptation wastes a compelling performance on a shallow narrative desperate to get us to care about these specific people despite there being so little to even start trying. Besides a beautiful bit of fluid montage filmmaking during an epilogue spanning fourteen years, everything is moving too fast for us to absorb the emotional toll being paid. Despite this being a visual medium, the Russo Brothers are committing the cardinal sin of telling us to feel rather than earning that feeling as a result of what they’ve put on-screen. It’s all just pretend.

[1] Tom Holland in “Cherry,” premiering globally March 12, 2021 on Apple TV+.
[2] Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo in “Cherry,” premiering globally March 12, 2021 on Apple TV+.
[3] Tom Holland in “Cherry,” premiering globally March 12, 2021 on Apple TV+.

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