Tom Holland drug drama Cherry can't shake its clichés: Review
"Sometimes I feel like I've already seen everything that's gonna happen," Cherry's nameless narrator (Tom Holland) intones mournfully in one of the movie's earliest scenes. "And it's a nightmare." Maybe he's a teenage fatalist; or maybe he's just familiar with the long, intoxicated legacy that precedes him onscreen in films like Drugstore Cowboy, Trainspotting, Beautiful Boy, The Basketball Diaries, Requiem for a Dream — the latest initiate in what you might call an already-exhaustive Portrait of the Addict As a Young Man canon.
There is something admirable in directing duo Anthony and Joe Russo choosing to follow Avengers: Endgame, the top-grossing movie of all time, with a more personal story like Cherry, based on Nico Walker's 2018 novel of the same name. Walker's visceral, raw-knuckled debut — based loosely on his own experience — told the harrowing tale of a young Army medic irreparably damaged by the trauma of war, numbing his pain with opiates and robbing banks to support a habit quickly spun out of control.
It all sounds almost irresistibly cinematic (Walker himself was released from federal prison just as filming began, after serving six years). And for the first hour, it is something like that: An adrenalized, aggressively styled fever dream unfurled in a series of fourth-wall-breaking flashbacks that begin when Holland's shy Ohio kid falls giddily in love with a doll-faced coed named Emily (A Teacher's Ciara Bravo), then impulsively enlists in the military when she breaks things off.
She comes back soon enough, but it's too late to renege on his two-year enlistment. It's also the early aughts, a time of real terrifying action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the story finds a jagged power in those scenes between basic training and the battlefield: a grunt's-eye view of a baffling, sun-blasted place where everything is regimented but nothing makes sense. It's also where boys like him — the naive "cherries" of the title — become men or just bomb fodder; if they're lucky they make it home alive, at least on the outside.
And he does, though it isn't long before the occasional Xanax leads to harder opiates and then heroin. Emily resists but soon joins in, the Nancy to his addled Midwestern Sid. That's when the script (co-penned by Angela Russo-Otstot, the directors' sister, and The Path's Jessica Goldberg) spins into something hazier and far more wearying: the junkie romance.
They score; they shoot up; they can't quit each other, listlessly. And he supports their growing habit by embarking on the world's unlikeliest string of robberies. (Aspiring criminals, get thee to Cleveland — where walking unmasked into a bank and demanding thick wads of unmarked bills is apparently as easy as punching in your pin code.)
Logic may seem like a churlish thing to wish for in a movie that deliberately operates in such a heightened state of unreality. And petty, too, to single out the casting of its young leads — particularly Spider-Man's Holland, the gifted British actor who has turned in starkly affecting performances outside of the Marvel multiverse in smaller-scale projects from the 2012 tsunami drama The Impossible to last year's pleasingly seamy Southern gothic The Devil All the Time.
But for all the central pair's commitment — Holland reportedly lost 30 pounds from his already lean frame for the role — it's hard to shake the feeling that they're both playing dress-up, a glossy Riverdale rendering of craving and codependence that mostly resonates in the worn-down vernacular of cliché: the blissful highs and itchy, spiraling lows; the scabbed-over track marks and earnest delivery of lines like "Sometimes I feel like love doesn't actually exist."
As the story pings and ricochets through the last increasingly unhinged hour of its 140-minute run time, the chaos feels like a fitting parallel, maybe, for its protagonist's state of mind. For all the frenzied action of the final scenes though, there's an airless, overwrought sense of diminishing returns; and that's a comedown we've seen too many times before. Grade: C
(Cherry is in select theaters Friday and comes to AppleTV+ March 12.)