Do you ever read a book, find yourself stunned, then spend hours trying to picture exactly what the adaptation will look like? The sights, the sounds — and more importantly, names involved?
Maybe I’m just a guy who lives in my own IP-pipeline head too frequently, but Nico Walker’s 2018 debut novel “Cherry” had that magical effect on me when I picked it up last November.
Written by the author while serving a 11-year prison sentence for a string of bank robberies he committed during a PTSD-fueled battle with heroin addiction, the story tells an odyssey-like tale of a nameless young man who falls in love with a girl he meets at a local college, marries and soon becomes separated from as he enlists as an army medic in the Iraq War, all before he faces unbelievable struggles upon his return and turns towards a life of crime to feed both of their drug addictions and ultimately combat the demons he faces from his years of service.
An extremely visceral and genuinely heartbreaking coming of age story, “Cherry” caught my attention from a pop culture podcast I frequent on a regular basis — especially when I learned that none other than Marvel’s own Russo Brothers (“Avengers Infinity War & Endgame”) and friendly neighborhood Spiderman Tom Holland would be directing and starring in a film version.
While the thought of Peter Parker holding up tellers and shooting up black tar felt as foreign as doing it myself, I was cautiously optimistic that the pairing would be able to put together an adaptation worthy of recognition. Holland, first recognized (and previously recommended) for his work in J.A. Bayona’s tsunami film “The Impossible” in 2010, provided what I thought to be a solid performance in last fall’s Netflix crime ensemble “The Devil All The Time” — clearly attempting to showcase the development of deeper dramatic chops in the years since he took over the web-slinging mantle and trying to shed the reputation most know and adore him for.
The move on the Brothers’ parts also seemed deliberate, breaking from the superhero franchise and foraying into prestige play in a trajectory that spans from Emmy-winning sitcoms like “Arrested Development” and “Community” all the way to Marvel’s triumphant third phase conclusion in 2019. I wrote about how beautifully they handled that closing chapter a few weeks ago, and like Holland — I was excited to see where they would be headed next.
In what appeared to be an homage to filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and other crime directors from decades past, Holland’s unnamed protagonist frequently breaks the fourth wall throughout the “sections” (labeled as such) and explains to the audience why is performing the actions he does. Whether that be taking acid and tripping during a happenstance meet-cute with his girlfriend and future wife Emily, played by Ciara Bravo (“Big Time Rush”), or pointing a nine-millimeter directly in the face of a bank teller during one of the climactic robberies of the film’s exhausting 141 minute runtime.
What works as informative and revealing in those previous films doesn’t match the tone of the matter here, and oftentimes comes off as mockingly sarcastic and truthfully feels as though it fetishizes the actions the protagonist undertakes to feed his growing addictions.
Throw in moment after moment of baffling insert shots and cartoonish text imagery to emphasize what we can already see unfolding before us, particularly a brutal basic training sequence that attempts to mimic the opening half of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, and I was left wondering if the Brothers really forgot they no longer made sardonic, “let’s all stare at the camera” sitcoms or simply don’t care either way.
The most confusing part about these hokey artistic choices? Most of this imagery fades before the heroin-laced-portion of the story even occurs — one of the strangest decisions in a screenplay that if done due diligence to source would have been far more affecting on viewers.
Despite the many issues I had with the direction, there were a few lone bright spots in “Cherry” that helped me stick it out despite how ill-advised I thought the Russo Brothers’ interpretation was. The Iraq battle sequences, shot with the action-packed vigor I know they’re capable of providing, were pretty effective in capturing the brutality of war on screen – most notably when Holland’s fellow squadron mates are killed by a desert explosive and the rooted trauma of what he’s endured during his time overseas begin to take center stage across the narrative.
Holland likewise does a decent job of capturing the energy of a depressed soul whose been beaten down by the world well into the latter half of the tale, especially once his physical transformation becomes apparent and he turns into a living zombie who will do most anything to avoid the horrifying withdrawal symptoms that come with heroin addiction.
Unfortunately, whether he’s sobbing on the phone to Emily from Fallujah or truly losing his grip on his sanity after an accident takes away his will to live, his inherently plucky boyish charm still doesn’t quite capture the slowly growing monster Walker managed to construct in the novel. I give him an “A” for effort all around, but ultimately his performance led me to think that another young star — ahem, an often-sullen fellow named Timothée Chalamet — would have been a better fit.
As the epilogue came to a close and I turned off my computer, I texted fellow arts writer Dominic LeRose and told him how much I wanted to like this movie — but simply couldn’t because of how much of a jumbled mess I thought it was. It tries to jump through too many narrative hoops and capture too many tropes across a weird style of filmmaking that it felt more like a piece of fan fiction than anything else, disappointing for how much I enjoyed Walker’s book and think others who only saw this version of his true-to-life story would too.
If the Russo Brothers had something to say about modern America in “Cherry”, they didn’t quite know how to do it — a precarious situation I often find myself in whenever I sit down to write reviews for all of you.
Perhaps they’ll find it with more chances now that the Marvel days seem behind them, yet until then largely fell flat in their first expedition beyond Captain America and company. As for Mr. Holland, I won’t sell my stock quite yet — but as our back-and-forth messages might reveal, he may be better suited for riding the romcom highway ahead.
You can find “Cherry” streaming on AppleTV+ right now