Driving around the streets of an empty Los Angeles late last year, I found myself overwhelmed by a staggering amount of For Your Consideration billboards for “Cherry.” Behind these vague ads, there was a sense of curiosity about the film that convinced me to watch it. It seemed like they started their Oscar campaign prematurely — months before the film’s release. I thought Apple’s new distribution team had something good on their hands.
After watching the film, it has all of the characteristics of a solid piece of bait to propel Tom Holland to some awards acclaim — Holland does hard drugs, he cries before sex, he goes to war, etc. In light of last week’s nominations, I can confidently say that simply having these scenes is not enough to be in the running.
Directed by the Russo brothers, the duo who previously worked on “Avengers: Endgame” and “Captain America: Civil War,” the film tells the semi-chronological story of Holland’s titular Cherry. Having fallen madly in love after wooing his classmate Emily (Ciara Bravo), the couple embark on a passionate relationship disrupted by her decision to move to Montreal. Left wayward by that news, Cherry enlists in the army, only for Emily to soon change her mind and stay with him. Now committed to enlisting, he and Emily have a shotgun wedding and a solemn Cherry leaves for Iraq. Scarred by the horrors of war, he spirals into a life of heroin use, scamming hollow caricatures of drug dealers and robbing banks for his next fix.
If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. “Cherry” is fully loaded, divided by pretty unnecessary title cards — into multiple sections that end up feeling fairly disconnected from each other. There’s enough material here for at least two movies — neither of which I’d particularly care to see again.
It is an insane act of hubris that this movie is as long as “Shawshank Redemption.” To its credit, it wastes no time hitting the ground running. There is certainly enough going on to fill its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. I’m just not sure that I needed to see all of it to get the point (it feels like there must be 20-something bank robberies in the last act). After 2019’s three-hour-plus “Endgame” made a zillion dollars, you would think that the Russo brothers have experience in making longer movies that engage the audience, but you would be wrong. It wasn’t as hard to get through as I feared it’d be after the first 20 minutes, but all in all, it’s really just a poorly paced, big old slog.
If some movies are considered cookie-cutter, then this one is a loose mound of dough. It contains all the elements of your typical cliched college boy’s-plans-gone-wrong movie, but lacks a shred of joy. There are also a ton of clashing technical choices, such as poorly placed flashbacks that throw off what little momentum the film has going, along with an abuse of cutaways and a near-constant voiceover that suddenly disappears, that never coalesce into any actual sense of style.
The first section of the film shows glimmers of the potential to be funny — and the Russo brothers directed some of the best episodes of “Arrested Development,” so they know a thing or two about being funny. Despite their previous experience, “Cherry” has such a desire to be taken seriously that any opportunity for humor falls flat. There is actually some really interesting technical work, such as a few creative shots and some exciting match cuts to be found at times. But the movie feels like an unfinished project. Apple wanted one of their movies to be an awards-season contender on their platform, but this is not that movie.
A large part of the film takes place in Iraq, where Holland’s Cherry checks off every box of awful things that might happen to a young and naive soldier. The film’s depiction of the war is so unrelentingly corny, violent and starving for pathos that it just comes across as desperate. All the usual war movie cliches are there: abusive drill sergeants, a horrible accident that kills the protagonist’s entire squadron and forces him to drag their bodies across the sand, and an absolutely grating subplot focusing on his relationship with one of the local Iraqi children. It’s just all so much, and so predictable, that none of it ever feels real. The Russo brothers’ handling of these sequences strips the meaning from the political sentiments regarding the horrors of the Iraq War that could’ve given this movie any direction.
Tom Holland fans will at least be happy to hear that his performance is pretty great. He puts up a formidable fight with the terrible script, delivering some classic lines like, “I take all the beautiful things to heart, and then they f-ck my heart until I just about die from it.” More often than not, he comes out on top. However, the sequence where he takes Ecstasy and throws leaves into the air over his head in sepia-tone color grading is painful. Such obvious and superficial choices like that make the film feel blatantly manipulative. Audiences would probably be quite lost with regards to the subject matter if “Cherry” didn’t hit them over the head so hard that it feels like a toddler could get the gist.
Throughout the never-ending trials and tribulations Cherry undergoes, it really does feel like Holland gave this performance all he’s got. However, everything else the Russos throw at him seems determined to drag him and the film down into a pastiche of boring mediocrity. He takes on the challenge of a ton of narration and weirdly placed fourth-wall breaks very well. Holland shines in a genuinely great bank robbery sequence in the film’s last act, which captures his desperation in stunning long takes. Holland makes this scene exceptional through his acting choices, demanding the camera’s attention with his breakdowns. It’s a beautifully shot scene that perhaps only works so well because it doesn’t feel like it exists just to teach a lesson.
Holland plays Cherry’s transition from awkward and nervous lovestruck college student to a PTSD-stricken veteran and junkie as best as he can. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is his Radcliffe moment, in which he tries to prove he can play more than just the one iconic boyish role by swinging to excess in the other direction. I think he’s a great actor, and I’d love to see him in more stuff that doesn’t feel the need to have him be a nerdy teenager before he becomes something else. There is a comic level of vulgarity in a lot of the dialogue of the film that feels really determined to prove that Holland isn’t just a web-slinger.
Ciara Brown has great chemistry as Holland’s co-star. The 24-year-old “Big Time Rush” actress gives an all-around solid performance, with some genuinely harrowing moments portraying the toll of addiction. However, the script never lets Emily seem like anything more than a tool for putting Cherry into even more gruesome and terribly sad situations for Holland to act through.
“Cherry” will perhaps be subject to brutal criticism, but the truth is that it’s just so forgettable. Even though the Russo brothers leveraged their production power to bring attention to the subject of addiction, the film is too formulaic for any of its commentary to be meaningful. Overly directed and tonally inconsistent, “Cherry” is a big miss for Apple’s original content.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 5 e-print edition. Email Holden Lay at [email protected]