Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Jeff Wahlberg, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini
Written by: Angela Russo-Otstot, Jessica Goldberg, based on a novel by Nico Walker
Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
MPAA Rating: R for graphic drug abuse, disturbing and violent images, pervasive language, and sexual content
Running Time: 142
Date: 03/12/2021

Cherry (2021)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Junk Flail

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Released in some theaters on February 26, 2021 and making its AppleTV+ debut Friday, March 12, Cherry is the seventh feature film by the brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

It so happens that four of those seven are Marvel Cinematic Universe films, comprised of two Captain America films and two Avengers films. The most recent one, Avengers: Endgame, is currently the highest-grossing film of all time.

What does a filmmaker do next? Rather than trying to top it, the best move, and the one that 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 may give up on the rest of 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 and breaks the fourth wall throughout, 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 that 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 for Montreal, but only 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, by the way. 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 quickly 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.

It's no stretch to say that 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 that regularly occur in the U.S.

It would take a skilled filmmaker or filmmakers to find a tone that could convey the seriousness of it, but also not bash the audience over the head, putting viewers through an unpleasantly grueling experience.

The Russos, instead, 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 about its message.

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, Trainspotting (1996), used the same methods, but there's a difference. Not only did Trainspotting have a different tone, a more rebellious, satirical tone, it was also well-paced, with horrors and thrills coming 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 positively 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 all about that once the twitchy, anxious drug addiction scenes begin. And addiction seems to have been forgotten during the whiz-bang robbery sequences.

To put a point to it, it's a movie that seems more based on movies than 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 that 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.

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