It’s safe to assume that Nico Walker knew his life story could make for a good movie in the right hands. By the time he finished up his prison sentence in Ashland, Kentucky, he was waiting for the publication of the semi-autobiographical novel he’d written from jail about the wayward journey that had brought him there in the first place. The book was called “Cherry,” and the bestseller’s instant success would earn enough to afford its 33-year-old author — a former Iraq War Army medic, opioid addict, and mild-mannered bank robber in that order — a second chance to be all that he could be, even before directors Anthony and Joe Russo paid him $1 million dollars for the film rights and turned it into their first post-“Avengers: Endgame” production. Suffering through the Russo brothers’ scuzzy, interminable, and misjudged adaptation of Walker’s life story, there’s no question who got the better end of that deal.
“Cherry” popped with readers and rubberneckers alike because of its blunt take on a multi-car pile-up of millennial crises. Neither Walker nor the semi-unnamed protagonist who served as his proxy were much interested in style points or seeming cool. The unvarnished writing so casually processed Holden Caulfield’s matter-of-fact heartache through Hemingway’s dead-eyed war stories, Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo debasement, and Denis Johnson’s “here but for the grace of God go I” journeys to Hell and back that Walker could’ve plausibly denied any familiarity with their work.
But “Cherry” was still the torch-bearer of a proud tradition that it carried into the 21st century; an explosive account of a country that struggles to imagine how the suffering it causes for so many could be as self-evident as the success that it allows for a chosen few. The Russo brothers don’t bother with such subtlety. You’d have to go back to the glory days of solipsistically overcranked post-9/11 cinema like “Spun” and “Rules of Attraction” to find a movie so determined to hold your attention hostage with an unloaded gun of its own empty affectations. Period details are one of the few things that “Cherry” gets right about its story (behold Jack Reynor sporting two popped collar shirts on top of each other in his role as a preppy drug dealer named Pills and Coke), but the Russos’ aesthetic is far too stultifying and self-insistent to forgive their intricate approach to rendering the Bush era in the visual language of its time.
From fitting red chapter titles and fourth-wall breaking narration to gratuitous speed-ramping, trick mirrors, visualized dialogue (the words “COCK HOLSTER” billboard across the screen at one point), and splashes of selective color (à la the little girl’s coat in “Schindler’s List”), “Cherry” sometimes feels like more of a live-action comic book than any of the “Avengers” movies ever did. The decision to cast Spider-Man himself in the lead role doesn’t exactly diminish that sensation, in large part because fresh-faced Tom Holland — despite his admirable commitment to the bit — radiates so much friendly neighborhood sincerity that he can only wear his character’s indifference like it’s just another mask.
The film begins with its hard-luck hero looking into the camera lens and narrating a 2007 bank robbery in real-time before the action skips back a few years to walk us through how he got there, but it can’t even make the leap from PROLOGUE to PART ONE without falling into the uncanny valley between them. “I’ve got a lot of sadness in the face so I have to act crazy or people think I’m a pussy” Holland tells the audience as he strolls through “Capitalist One” or “Shitty Bank” (get it?) or whichever one of the “Fight Club”-fresh sight gags happens to be misfiring in the background. But Holland has the enthusiasm of a puppy dog who can’t even go hungry without wagging his tail about it.
That eagerness works in the actor’s favor when his character is trying to fight his way through the self-destructive masculine anxieties the movie throws his way, but it’s a ruinous mismatch with the apathetic tone of this material. “It’s not even that interesting,” he says about everything from robbing a bank to reporting for duty in Iraq. The falseness of his modesty is typical of a film steeped in the overaffected affectlessness of his delivery.
In fairness to the Russos and the all-too-real story they took it upon themselves to tell here, it may have been impossible to capture the kite-on-a-string youth of these unfortunate characters without skewing so young that “Cherry” started to feel like a high school production of “Death of a Salesman.” Yet Holland’s miscasting handcuffs the rest of the movie to a precociousness that was much easier to accept on the page. “The Long Dumb Road” actress Ciara Bravo plays Emily, the love interest next door who turns our hero’s life upside down at the Jesuit University they both attend (“I have a thing for weak guys,” she teases).
They make a fine couple, but Bravo’s ultra-young appearance strains belief as the characters age throughout the film. She isn’t done any favors by a script that reduces Emily’s childhood trauma to the length of a chintzy cut-away, and overstates her eventual melodramatic slide into opioid addiction that you have to stop yourself from laughing at the story’s most acute moment of sadness. Few movie scenes are more galling than the ones that render a common tragedy — say, someone getting hooked on OxyContin in a desperate bid to scare their partner out of the habit — in such ridiculous terms that an audience questions whether it could actually happen in real life.
In between those early college days and the expensive drug addict years that inspire our boy to start robbing banks, Cherry goes off to war and earns the only name he ever has. Don’t hold your breath for a satisfying explanation, as the Russos’ approach to the Iraq chapter — a half-hour chunk in an 140-minute endurance test — seems almost perversely determined to miss any sort of point. While the combat sequences allow the directors to flex their muscles in a way they never could when playing in the Marvel sandbox, they can’t help but overcompensate.
The second half of this movie could only work if we understood in visceral terms that Cherry’s nerves were so frayed by his experience as a medic that even robbing a bank wouldn’t quicken his heartbeat — he’d zip-tied enough Iraqi civilians and survived enough firefights that nothing about life back home could faze him — and yet when it comes to conveying that cold-blooded disconnect the Russos settle for all the wrong solutions. Their fear of cliché drives them straight towards kitsch, as voiceover-heavy sequences about our hero’s masturbation habits and isometric views of his (Army) unit sweeping through local houses are shot with a jarhead slickness that labors to illustrate Cherry’s gradual desensitization from the world around him, but only manages to induce our own.
The film never quite sells us on Cherry’s stony numbness, and things only get worse when his polite sociopathy collides with the PTSD he brings home from the war in a histrionic way that muddles them both. “I’m 23 years old,” he tells us at the start, “and I still don’t understand what it is that people do.” “Cherry” doesn’t have any decent answers for him; it can only smother him under the crushing weight of style over substance.
There are a few small pockets of air along the way (Michael Gandolfini is a lot of fun as Cherry’s oafish friend), but “Cherry” has no way of getting you to care about someone who hardly seems to care about himself. Its protagonist is like a Plinko chip getting bounced from one American disaster to the next and scrambling for any kind of agency he can find as he falls towards rock bottom. At the end of the day, his only available recourse is to sit down on the side of the road and decide that he just doesn’t want to be in this movie anymore. Don’t sweat it, Cherry.