This country’s disastrous misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan set the stage for what feels like the decline of American civilization, but such a grand statement doesn’t capture the human scale or intensity of the loss. Cherry, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, does a fine job of attaching sympathetic characters and sensuous imagery to this story of wasted youth, diminished opportunities and no future, but the fact that it feels like an unremarkable story is a critique of both the movie and the society that it reflects.

Within a novelistic structure, including titled chapters and the main character’s narration throughout, Cherry tells the story of a young man (Tom Holland) struggling to find a place for himself in a heartless nation. The script, adapted from Nico Walker’s novel by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg, follows the daily drag of a college kid in Cleveland who works odd jobs and dabbles in petty drug use with his going-nowhere friends (Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini and Kyle Harvey). “It’s as if all of this were built on nothing, and nothing were holding all of this together,” he intones in voice-over early on. The year is 2002, and America’s latest war in Iraq is just getting started. Joining the Army was probably not the wisest career move at the time, but a break-up with his capricious girlfriend, Emily (Ciara Bravo), drives him to do just that. The film cycles through a chapter on basic training, and then a tour in Iraq where he serves as a combat medic and earns the nickname “Cherry” after surviving his inaugural ambush. Senseless tragedy and disillusionment ensue.

Though the details feel authentic, little happens here that we haven’t seen in many other depictions of American malaise at the start of the 21st century. What elevates the material at times is the panache displayed by the co-directors. Having proved their mettle with a string of successful Marvel superhero movies, the Russo brothers bring their blockbuster game. The camera is a fluid presence, threading its way through crowded rooms and swooping across battlefields that zip with bullets. The tone is atmospheric, drenched in velvety shadows and glowing light, but at times the visual sumptuousness overpowers the bleakness of the narrative, unsuited to the setting and events.

Tom Holland will be familiar to many as the latest incarnation of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and his role here leverages that same youthful vitality with a good dose of darkness and more than a few bracing f-words. A British actor, he nails the flat cadences of an upper midwest dialect, and he leaves no doubt that he’ll be a formidable screen presence for years to come. It’s delicious to watch his aw-shucks, little-boy persona shift into darker registers as the injustices and absurdities of his world ratchet up, driving him into despair, addiction and then, in the movie’s third act, violent action. Teased by a flash-forward prologue, Cherry’s transformation into a sweet-talking bank robber feels at once inevitable and clichéd: press pause at any given moment and you could probably brainstorm the dialogue and story beats before the scene plays out.

With such an appealing lead performance from Holland, and the cinematic chops of the Russo Brothers, the filmmakers’ collective talent seems to outstrip the material. The script meanders at times, diving into extraneous details that sometimes charm and sometimes baffle. In a novel, such narrative detours can add texture and depth but Cherry feels over-stuffed by half an hour, especially in a bleak chapter on the descent into pills and addiction in which Cherry and Emily nearly lose themselves (despite remaining gorgeous throughout). Perhaps a decade ago, when the AMC show “Breaking Bad” was keyed into the zeitgeist, this story of the human wreckage of societal collapse would have felt fresh and edgy, and its tragedy would have been piercing. Instead, it feels like a beautifully rendered treatment of one of hundreds of heartbreaking stories we’ve seen documenting the slow and brutal dissolution of the American dream. That’s a bummer for a movie, but a tragedy for the rest of us.

The fact that it feels like an unremarkable story is a critique of both the movie and the society that it reflects.
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American dream interrupted
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