Released in some theaters two weeks ago and making its AppleTV+ debut t Friday, “Cherry” is the seventh feature film by the brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo.
Four of those are Marvel Cinematic Universe films, including two “Captain America” films and two “Avengers” films. The most recent one, “Avengers: Endgame,” is currently the highest-grossing film of all time.
Rather than trying to top it, the best move, the one the Russos have made, is to go small. However, they probably ought to have gone smaller still.
“Cherry” focuses on an unnamed protagonist — his supposed nickname, “Cherry,” isn’t really used — whose life becomes a rollercoaster ride of love, loss, the Army, war, love again, drug addiction, and, then robbing banks.
The Russos brought along their Spider-Man, Tom Holland, to portray him, and he does so brilliantly. It’s extremely heavy material, and Holland truly dives into it. But he hangs onto bits of his innate likability so that we never give up on him, even if we give up on the movie.
Based on a 2018 semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker — and adapted by a Russo sister, Angela Russo-Otstot, and TV writer Jessica Goldberg (of the Hulu series “The Path”) — “Cherry” begins with the protagonist telling his tale, as if in an interview. He narrates, speaking directly to the audience, explaining how everything works.
Things start in college, in Cleveland. Our nerdy narrator spots the button-cute Emily (Ciara Bravo) in class. They flirt a little, and eventually fall into a serious relationship.
But soon, Emily announces she’s moving to Montreal. The heartbroken narrator does the most logical thing he can think of: he joins the Army.
Emily re-emerges and explains that she really isn’t leaving, but said so because she was afraid of how deeply in love she is. But it’s too late. Our hero is headed for boot camp, and then war in Iraq.
This is where the nickname comes from. He becomes a medic, and after his first battlefield experience — piling a soldier’s spilled intestines back into a stomach wound — someone tells him he has “popped his cherry.”
He returns home to Emily, but finds it difficult to adjust. He begins taking OxyContin and spirals into heroin addiction. Emily jumps in, too, willingly accompanying him in his highs and miserable lows. He, of course, turns to robbing banks to finance their habit.
Holland is terrific, and so is Bravo, but the movie has problems. The main one is that this is punishing material, based on actual experiences and actual problems occurring in the U.S.
It would take a skilled filmmaker to find a tone that could convey the seriousness, yet at the same time not put viewers through an unpleasantly grueling experience.
The Russos go full “GoodFellas,” inflating the running time to an absurd two hours and 22 minutes. The film continually references itself, winking, and attempting to be clever. It’s also populated with swishing, swooping camerawork, slo-mo and other tricks, as well as a few Van Morrison songs sprinkled on top.
One could argue that another drug movie, 1996’s “Trainspotting,” used the same methods, but there’s a difference. Not only did “Trainspotting” have a different, more rebellious, satirical tone, it was also well-paced, with horrors and thrills at just the right time.
“Cherry” merely goes all-out. And, while the events unfolding in front of us follow a logical progression, there’s a lack of feeling. Which is perhaps ironic, given that “Avengers: Endgame” was chock-full of feeling.
For example, Cherry and Emily say that they love each other, but it doesn’t feel like anything. It doesn’t give us the tingles.
Cherry may be battle-scarred and suffering from PTSD, but the movie seems to forget that when the twitchy, anxious drug addiction scenes begin. And addiction seems to have been forgotten during the whiz-bang robbery sequences.
The movie seems based on movies, not on life. And given that it comes from Walker’s real-life, painful, challenging experiences, it seems disingenuous.
One can only imagine what it might be like to be a Russo, kings of the most phenomenal movie franchise in history. It might be glamorous, but it might also be isolating. Certainly their fellow king, James Cameron, seems to have become locked inside his entirely artificial “Avatar” universe for good.
At least the Russos were clearly trying, with “Cherry,” to show they are still interested in human stories. Here’s hoping that, for the next time out, they look for inspiration beyond their dark, private screening room and step out into the light.
Starring: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli
Written by: Angela Russo-Otstot, Jessica Goldberg
Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes