Cherry: Artificially Flavored, by David Bax
At the end of Cherry, a title card pops up reading, “A Russo Brothers Movie.” The word choice there is a fitting summation of the directors’ entertainment-first ethos. Their relentlessly larger-than-life inclusions–red tinting, swooping cameras, massive text superimpositions–occasionally serve a formalistic purpose in moments where they reflect the self-aggrandizing tendencies of Cherry, the main character. But these touches are employed indiscriminately, ultimately revealing the basic superficiality of Cherry the movie.
Cherry, it should be noted, is only the protagonist’s name in the credits. He’s never given one in the film itself. Whatever he’s called, Tom Holland plays a character presumably inspired by Army veteran turned heroin addict turned bank robber turned inmate turned writer Nico Walker, upon whose semi-autobiographical novel Cherry is based. Wisely, the chapters of the story are presented as chapters in the movie, helping to make it clear that no single part of the man’s life is the defining one.
One constant throughout, though, is lots and lots of narration and even the occasional breaking of the fourth wall. I refuse to be the churlish sort who dismisses voice-over out of hand but, if I were, Cherry would be a good argument for my cause, especially since so much of it–describing a college party, he says, “Everything was dismal as murder”–feels like someone playing at writing a sardonic novel.
But in the movie’s best two chapters–covering basic training and Cherry’s subsequent tour in Iraq–the Russos offer evidence that the self-conscious narration is fitting and intentional. When the experience of boot camp is summed up as, “The Army was pretending to be the Army,” Cherry gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an insecure person of some intelligence, remaining at a distance from your own life, half out of bemusement and half out of terror. In other words, it’s not the movie that’s self-conscious, it’s Cherry himself.
After that invigorating and sometimes brutal middle section, though, Cherry devolves for most of the rest of its running time into a pretty standard heroin addict movie. It feels a bit callous to say such a thing about a story inspired by someone’s actual struggles with addiction but the fact remains that shots of heroin being cooked in a spoon or of strung out people begging for a hit are pretty familiar.
Once we get to the robberies, the Russos attempt to enliven things by injecting a bit of what appears to be intended as satire. Each of the banks Cherry robs has a clever name like Shitty Bank or Credit None. If you squint, perhaps, you could argue that this is once again the movie presenting the world as the character sees it, looking for justification for his crimes. But it seems more like a miscalculation that shifts the blame onto an easy-to-hate corporate enemy. It’s the final proof that Cherry is a movie too clever for its own good.