After making four movies in a franchise that has been fielding criticism of getting increasingly monotonous, the Russo Brothers have made a film that defies labels in the most rebellious manner possible. With Cherry, Joe and Anthony Russo reunite with Tom Holland to shed light on a crisis within a crisis within a crisis, in a film that can only be described as Forrest Gump with drug fiends.
The Russos earned possibly the biggest blank cheque in history after Avengers: Endgame; they could’ve legitimately made any movie they wanted. But Cherry is no passion project, not in the traditional sense; not like Avatar or The Irishman. It’s based on a novel by Nico Walker that the Russos scored advance copies of, while they were still in production on their Avengers movies and Walker was still in prison. Their decision to make this the follow-up to their Marvel run was, given the context, recent.
Watch the Cherry trailer here
The impulse to go small after having hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal isn’t unprecedented. M Night Shyamalan famously decided that unless he had skin in the game, filmmaking was no longer a challenge for him. And so, he mortgaged his house and self-financed his Hollywood comeback, The Visit.
In a major creative departure from his more popular superhero fare, Holland plays Cherry, a young man with a rather difficult relationship with institutions. Across two-and-a-half gloriously bonkers hours, we watch as he pinballs from college to the army, and then into prison. He also finds the time to develop a drug habit and rob banks.
In a fit of flamboyance, the Russos divide the chapters in Cherry’s life into literal, tonally and stylistically independent segments — much like what Danny Boyle did in his Steve Jobs film. While Cherry’s time at college is filmed like an over-stylised music video, his torturous stint at an army boot camp is shot in an allegorically cramped aspect ratio.
It’s all very deliberate; all very on-the-nose, which suggests that the Russos might have misjudged the extent to which they could push Cherry’s story, based in part on author Walker’s life, into some truly bizarre territories. Overstuffed and often overwhelming, Cherry resembles something that a first-time filmmaker afraid of never getting a second chance would’ve made, and not a vanity project by the directors behind some of the most successful pop-culture artefacts of the last two decades.
It’s their attempt at making the Great American Movie, an ambitious experiment that sadly crumbles under the sheer weight of the ‘issues’ that the Russos try and tackle. Cherry experiences unemployment, wartime conflict, economic recession, millennial love, disenfranchisement and disillusionment. That’s too much for anyone to handle, and it’s no surprise that it eventually breaks his brain.
But the film, while sympathetic to Cherry’s anxieties (evidenced by the fact that the Russos envision him as a sort of modern-day Holden Caulfield), never truly gets under his skin. They appear to be too preoccupied with showing off, which is odd, considering that they have very little to prove anymore.
They do tableaus and split screens, slow motion and jump cuts; sometimes opera plays in the background, other times the Russos blast some pop music. There are Italian gangsters, Middle Eastern businessmen, white junkies, girls next door. There are car crashes, helicopter crashes, bank robberies, drug benders; poor makeup, and a synth score.
But when the movie ends, you can almost imagine the Russos looking at the audience for approval, like a panting Jean Dujardin at the end of the The Artist. And all I could muster was a expression of utter bafflement.
No amount of blood-red title cards, or Henry Jackman’s overbearing music, or Newton Thomas Sigel’s expressionistic cinematography can distract from the fact that the film doesn’t come together as a whole. But all this can draw your attention away from the fine print. It’s unfortunate that like everything else in Cherry, including themes of toxic masculinity and the human cost of war, the Russos’ unsubtle directorial choices also overwhelm the performances of Holland and newcomer Ciara Bravo, both of whom are quietly grounded in the film’s near-fantastical world.
There is no doubt that the Russos have cashed in their Hollywood clout to produce some envelope-pushing entertainment under their AGBO banner. After Extraction, Mosul, and Relic, this was supposed to be the cherry on top of the cake. But here’s the thing, not everyone eats the cherry; some leave it on the side. And that might prove true for the film as well.
Directors – Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast – Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar