Part incel fantasia and part box-checking addiction drama, Cherry is the most embarrassing film yet from the Russo Brothers. They know from such things. They made You, Me and Dupree. Yes, this is worse. And yes, those are the same Russos (Joe and Anthony) behind four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s strongest entries (two Captain Americas, two Avengers). But their adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel about a descent into drug abuse is an infinity chore, 140 agonizing minutes spent carpetbagging the work of more convincingly caustic storytellers like Irvine Welsh or Chuck Palahniuk and larding up nearly every scene with ceaseless, needless flourishes.
Cherry’s introductory scene breaks the fourth wall, retreats to voiceover and internal monologue, and deploys an in medias res within a few seconds. In case you weren’t sure, the screen-filling subtitles let you know this is the PROLOGUE. It’s not evocative of the the racing mind of an addict. It’s just a warning shot that the Russos will dump their entire satchel of tricks for a few hours, along with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s go-bag full of lenses.
Once it arrives at … ahem … PART ONE: WHEN LIFE WAS BEGINNING, I SAW YOU, it treats us to real “blue balls in your heart” bon mots like “I take all the beautiful things to heart … and then they fuck my heart until I about die from it.” (The script comes from Jessica Goldberg, who created Hulu’s The Path, and the Russos’ sister, Angela.) This pReTtY tHiNgS cAn dEsTrOy a bOy story rests on the shoulders of star Tom Holland, whom the Russos shepherded to fame as Spider-Man and who plays the no-name protagonist (briefly nicknamed Cherry) like Peter Parker if he were bitten by a sentient opioid. In forcing Andrew Garfield’s jittery demeanor and Tobey Maguire’s early-2000s haircut on Holland, it’s like the Russos decided to beat that rumored all-hands Spider-Man movie to the representative punch. It also feels like an experiment to see how much murk they could bring to Holland’s inherent mirth, his head shaved and his muscle shed to indicate Cherry’s slide into annihilation. Holland will always feel more like Eddie Haskell than Eddie Bunker. But when Cherry goes to war, Holland briefly rises above the risible screenplay. And yet the Russos even rug-pull that with overlong cutaways to charred bodies. Because Cherry is so desperate to insist to you that it’s hard AF. No, really.
From the nice-or-nothing-at-all department, the Russos were smart to film Cherry in Ohio rather than a Californian approximation. The film still feels like it’s 90 hours long but it also feels like Cleveland, which provides the general backdrop to Cherry’s rise and fall: his salad days of college-aged romance with Emily (Ciara Bravo); his impulsive decision to join the Army as a medic; resultant PTSD papered over by prescriptions for Oxycontin once he returns home; a chemical dependency that also swallows up Emily; and Cherry’s eventual desperation heave of robbing banks to fund their habit.
If you thought Mr. Robot was precious, those banks have all-caps signs reading SHITTYBANK, BANK FUCKS AMERICA or CREDIT ONE. This is also a movie that essentially uses Cherry’s BIPOC friends as comic relief relative to their easy persecution by police. So it’s occasionally gross along with its garishness. There’s probably a good movie to be made about the pharmilitary industrial complex. But it’s not the one choosing to slather the screen with super-titled drill-sergeant euphemisms like DICK SKINNERS and COCK HOLSTERS while Cherry is in basic training or to include a POV shot from inside a soldier’s asshole while a light is shined inside. MAN, DIDN’T YOU HEAR US? WE SAID CHERRY IS HAAAAAAARD, BROSEPH.
Cherry is caps-lock filmmaking of the most frustrating order, so exhaustingly embellished by its visual bloat that the artifice swallows any effort the actors put forth. It’s more or less a 2000s music video about substance abuse masquerading as a film of substance, sort of like the stage version of American Idiot without chemistry, camaraderie or a salient point to make beyond “drugs … WHOA, brother!” And when it’s not showing off, it tells everything. “We should get married,” Cherry and Emily agree before a cut to said marriage and Cherry’s voiceover: “So we went down to the courthouse and got married.” Then again, maybe the Russos are banking on the wandering mind of viewers still at home. (The film opens theatrically Friday before a March 12 premiere on AppleTV+.)
Perhaps the Russos have a good serious movie within them to someday show they can do more than superhero spectacle or silly slapstick (from their days on Arrested Development). A scaled-back breather is also a natural inclination for many wildly successful blockbuster filmmakers before them. For Gore Verbinski, it was The Weather Man. For Michael Bay, it was Pain & Gain. With Cherry, the Russos act like an arena band eager to prove they can still command a club while foolishly trying to cram all-things-to-all-people spectacle in the smaller space. And the covers on their setlist here … well, the Russos have always been hooked on homage, but they’ve found ways to make it their own. Going for Kubrick or Malick here, they just wind up with “ick.”