A man’s journey that starts during his years as a college student and leads to a stint as an Army medic in Iraq, a suffering drug addict, and eventually an armed robber is told in “Cherry,” a film by the Russo brothers. Based on Nico Walker’s 2018 novel of the same name, this semi-autobiographical story is like an encyclopedia of bad decisions that focuses too heavily on portraying another American tale of opioid abuse. It’s a shame because this atypical coming-of-age movie could’ve been something so much better.
Cherry’s (Tom Holland) life seems normal enough. He’s an average guy working average jobs and doing well enough in school. He’s become smitten with beautiful co-ed Emily (Ciara Bravo), and it’s soon clear that she’s “the one.” After a breakup leaves him in agony, Cherry hastily decides to drop out of college and enlists in the Army, which brings Emily back into his life. The two get married before he’s sent off to basic training, and eventually Cherry is pushed into combat in the Middle East. While serving in the medical unit during the war, he sees the horrors of humanity first-hand, and comes home a changed man. Unable to function and with his marriage crumbling, he begins popping Oxycodone. This turns into an addiction spiral that eventually leads to a debilitating heroin habit that leaves him no choice but to start robbing banks for drug money.
It’s an interesting (if sad) story, but it’s not well told. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo throw in too many gimmicky devices that are all over the place, creating a chaotic potpourri of annoyance and exasperation. Not only are many of the scenes scored with opera and the lead character breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience, but the whole vibe of the movie is so disorderly that it makes me wonder if the Russos refused to make any edits to the hurricane of ideas in their heads. It’s as if they stuck anything and everything that came to mind into one two hour feature, and it’s like a headache come to life.
The basic training segment is the strongest part of the film, as is most of the material set during the war. Once the story shifts from Iraq, everything falls apart and it turns into another tedious addiction movie that’s not fun to watch. Seeing a couple strung out and shooting heroin to get through the day isn’t compelling, especially when it’s continuously repeated and every other scene serves little purpose other than to make you think “oh, how awful.”
It is horrible to see a young veteran who is consumed by an addiction that is a result of his paralyzing PTSD. It’s sad to see a man who can’t get help dealing with his psychological problems as he relives the worst horrors of war. It’s understandable that he and his wife become addicts who will do anything, including robbing banks, to score their next fix. But it’s the same old, same old when it comes to strung-out druggie movies, and the Russo brothers don’t present any fresh ideas or views on the topic.
The story is told from Cherry’s perspective, and screenwriters Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg don’t neglect the specifics of the man’s worldview (the film’s authority figures, for example, are introduced as anonymous figureheads like Sgt. Whomever at the Army enlistment office and Dr. Whomever, the Oxy-pushing counselor). The casual writing fits the material well, with vivid, descriptive writing and dialogue that’s wonderfully detailed.
All of this is brought to life through a career-best performance from Holland. He shows off his range and is terrific in the lead role. It’s a far cry from his “Spiderman” days, and Holland is growing as a big screen talent that will be one to watch for years to come. He’s not falling into the trap of agreeing to roles that will pigeonhole him, and his level of risk taking should be applauded.
“Cherry” is a mess of a movie that tries to do too much. Despite the film’s positive elements, I can’t get past the unnecessary excess.