Film Review – Cherry
After taking the world by storm with their work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the directing team of Anthony and Joe Russo set their sights on the crime drama, Cherry (2021). This is – in some ways – a departure from the colorful world of superheroes, opting for a darker, grittier film involving love, war, PTSD, and drug addiction. But at the same time, it feels as though the Russo Brothers took this opportunity to indulge in their cinematic obsessions almost to a fault. They have such a strong presence in every frame that it becomes a distraction. Instead of letting the story breathe on its own, they sink it with their hyper stylized approach.
Based on a screenplay by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg (adapted from Nico Walker’s novel), Cherry follows a young unnamed man (Tom Holland) through the ups and downs of his troubled life. The narrative weaves from his time college, his love affair with fellow student Emily (Ciara Bravo), his time as an army combat medic in the Middle East, his struggles with PTSD, how a dependence on opioids devolved into full on drug addiction, and the circumstances that would eventually lead to him becoming a serial bank robber. We open with the man attempting his latest heist, only to flashback and recount all the major life events that led up to that moment.
We can sense that the Russo Brothers came to this project with earnest intentions. They touch upon a number of serious topics that often go ignored by the rest of society. The treatment (or non-treatment) of veterans coming back from war and the opioid crisis are pressing concerns that have not been getting adequate attention. However, the tone is all over the place. The Russo Brothers juggle the material in a round robin of clashing moods. The plot goes from comedy, to dark drama, to sweet romance, to tragedy, to cautionary tale and back again. You could look at a section in the first act and another in the third and think that the pieces belong to two completely different movies.
It’s clear that Martin Scorsese plays as a large influence in the look and style, particularly from Goodfellas (1990). We even get an extensive narration from the young man as he guides us through each portion of his life. The fatal flaw is that the narration only works to describe what is happening on screen. The best kind of narration adds information that we would otherwise not be aware of without it. That is sadly not the case here. There is very little insight or deeper context provided, everything that is explained to us can be deduced from what we see on screen.
But the narration is only a small part to a more troubling whole. It would appear that the Russo Brothers were unleashed here. There is such a lack of restraint – they pour in just about every cinematic trick you can think of. We get a constantly moving camera, tons of slow motion, tricks involving lighting and camera angles. The frame will zoom past characters frozen in place, or the backlighting will dim to accentuate a person’s face. There are flashbacks, flash forwards, long unbroken takes, and montages set to cool hip songs in every other scene. A film this stylized is not necessarily bad thing, but the problem is that it doesn’t feel like it means anything. In a Scorsese film, everything operates with intention – every camera shot, every edit, and every musical choice is meant to evoke a certain feeling. Here, the execution is so over the top that it all feels empty. It’s as though the Russo Brothers flexed their cinematic muscles just for the hell of it. The whole piece ends up being overindulgent and pretentious.
With The Devil All the Time (2020) and now this, it’s obvious that Tom Holland is doing his best to break away from the Spider-Man persona he’s been associated with in the MCU. As the protagonist, Holland jumps in with full commitment. The character goes through an emotional rollercoaster, from college student to a medic to an unhinged drug addict. He is always on the edge, which only gets worse as we enter the second half. His hands get clammy, his body gets nervy, and his face gets sweaty and breaks out in sores and blisters. There isn’t a moment where he feels like he is taking things easy – he ramps up the intensity and stays there.
It’s too bad Holland’s work gets lost in a stylistic tornado. Cherry does not have the patience to let its central character open up and bare his soul. The narrative is too eager to get to the next scene, or to throw in the next montage to pull us out of the emotion of the story. The Russo Brothers’ direction takes up too much of the spotlight, calling attention to themselves. They took the motto “Less is More” and threw it out the window.