After years of shepherding the Marvel Cinematic Universe to its first major climax, directors Joe and Anthony Russo decided to make one of the proverbial “one for us” movies — as in “one for them, one for us.”
It’s a classic Hollywood strategy, where filmmakers follow up a moneymaking blockbuster with a personal project that’s more like an indie flick. The trouble with the Russo brothers “one for us” movie — a drama called Cherry, comes to Apple TV+ today — is that the “us” in this case possess no style, no ideology, no ideas and no ambition. Cherry is a total waste of $10 million and 2-and-a-half hours of screen time.
Tom Holland, who portrayed Spider-Man for the Russos and Jon Watts in a string of Marvel movies, plays the title character in Cherry. When we meet him, he’s describing the bank robbery he’s committing straight to the audience.
In theory, we’re probably wondering how he got here. Well, no, but uhh, sure. He started as an aimless college kid with a crush on classmate Emily (Ciara Bravo) and a host of no-good friends. When life throws him a curveball, he joins the Army. However, color blindness means he can only serve as a medic.
He does this for several years, then returns to his life with Emily suffering from a mean case of PTSD. He turns to drugs to soothe the pain, and when he runs out of money for the drugs, he starts robbing banks to pay for his habit.
If I ventured in the slipstream
Hoo boy, where to start? Cherry is very much the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore, because its cultural moment passed ages ago. Movies like this premiered something like twice a week back in the mid-’90s, when the combined powers of Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy sold America a thrilling (if of course also deeply upsetting and depressive) depiction of young Americans who turn to lives of crime.
These were by no means the only movies of this type to be released before the glut of ’90s crime films. (It was a true golden age: It’s still a little mind-blowing that the American public could count on movies by Carl Franklin, John Dahl, James Foley, Bill Duke, Steven Soderbergh and F. Gary Gray at regular intervals.) However, they were the big ones for sure.
Their success gradually led to a different kind of movie, a sort of diaristic crime saga. A Bronx Tale, Another Day in Paradise, Trainspotting and this movie’s closest relative, The Basketball Diaries.
In these movies, bad kids tell you about their bad lives as they happen. They mostly adhere to Catholic arcs of moral redemption. And they really relish all the bad behavior before pulling us back to relative safety.
Cherry is plainly intended as a new take on this kind of story. Every single decision — from the haphazardly chosen array of cameras, aspect ratios and lenses, to the soundtrack jammed with extremely expensive Van Morrison cuts; from the swear-heavy dialogue to the twin milieus of Army life and drug-fueled violent suburbia — speaks to an overwhelming desire to make the most important and cool and thrilling movie ever. To really remind people that just because the Russos spent the last decade making soulless product for $350 million a pop, they haven’t lost “it.”
But they have. They absolutely have. Whatever “it” is, they don’t have it. Maybe they never did.
Between the viaducts of your dream
The first thing to say about the experience of watching Cherry is that, despite its gimmickry, its frequent callbacks to better works, and its cast of young, exciting people (and Michael Rispoli, who has one scene that has nothing to do with anything), it’s almost unspeakably boring.
It’s one thing to steal your playbook from Tarantino (who got it from Jean-Luc Godard and so on and so forth). It’s quite another to do it 30 years after Tarantino’s debut and play it off like it’s brand-new while barely getting your heart rate above legally dead.
For all of the pop culture talk in Cherry, there’s zero sense anywhere that the Russos are ever going to admit that we’ve seen all this before. A good example: The Russos hired Three Kings cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel because the movie basically becomes Three Kings for an act. And yet, knowing that Three Kings was an incredibly popular film, they still don’t ever cut corners or just show you the things that could maybe hope to be cinematic.
They don’t skip the hair-buzzing sequence that every single movie about new military recruits rolls out. This has all been done — every single scene, every single emotion, every montage, every song, every angle from which the bank robberies and military skirmishes take place, every drone shot tinged ostentatiously yet meaninglessly red, every close-up of lovers Cherry and Emily saying they love each other with sores all over their faces — all of this has been done before and much, much better.
But it’s all here because the Russos think that either this is what movies are, or that they’re doing it all better. Both answers are obviously wrong and problematic.
Where immobile steel rims crack
Knowing very well that there isn’t an original foot of film in this nearly three-hour slog, they occasionally try to supercharge certain aesthetic decisions to freshen it up a little. This results in color grading so absolutely terrible and “stylish” that it’s like they replaced your Visine with Red Bull.
I haven’t seen its like since possibly the legless Lindsay Lohan thriller I Know Who Killed Me. (Ask me if that’s a compliment.) Cherry also displays a number of visual touches that ought to play as purposeful and part of a larger aesthetic design. But since the Russos never settled on one of those because they don’t remember how to make movies after a decade of pre-vis and blue screen, every “touch” they employ feels random and meaningless.
Why, for instance, do they keep the face of a bank teller in darkness early in the film, then reveal her later during the first robbery? She never factors into the plot in any meaningful way. Why is the Children of Men-style car camera rig employed for one scene only? Why do they use the Repo Man-style joke of writing things like “shitty bank” on the doors of every place Cherry robs, but nowhere else in the movie?
Why do we never get a sense of the subjective experience of either drugs or robberies, if that’s what the movie is about? Why does the film have onscreen text only during the Iraq War sequences? Why are we treated to a POV shot from inside Holland’s anus like in Flying Lotus’ Kuso for a split second, and then nothing like that ever happens again?
Sure, it’s a nice metaphor for this movie as a (w)hole, but there’s just no reason for any of the gimmicky garbage that gets thrown at the screen like 17 kinds of bad pasta.
And the ditch in the backroads stop
And finally, lord, there’s the dialogue. Holland and Bravo never seem believable as drugged-up losers yearning for a better life. Bravo looks like a Disney princess and Holland looks like Harry Potter, so you have to do more than cover them in lesions to make them look like something other than pampered millionaires who’ve been acting since they were old enough to walk.
They simply cannot handle the requirements of the terrible, terrible script. Holland starts the movie slurring his vaguely urban accent. But by the war stuff, he’s forgotten he’d chosen the accent and drops it. The great Jack Reynor shows up for about 20 minutes, at which point the movie becomes interesting, but he just as quickly exits and things go back to completely empty.
Holland goes from almost childlike in his conception of the world to cloyingly world-weary in the space of a few minutes. One second he’s intoning, “The trees are nice. I don’t understand them either but I like ’em. I think I like ’em all. Have to be a pretty fucked-up tree for me not to like it,” like he’s Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
Soon thereafter, he’s saying just how totally sick he is of a very specific type of college party: “Beer pong, sex dungeon, red-light district bullshit.” Late in the movie, he tells us, “Basically I was being a sad crazy fuck about the horrors I’d seen,” as if we hadn’t been sitting through this movie. It’s never a great sign when a film feels the need to rehash the subtext it laboriously set up for the last hour and a half.
Which is really the trouble with Cherry in a nutshell. This absolutely terrified movie keeps stealing from Reservoir Dogs and Basketball Diaries like they were released yesterday, and then every few minutes turns to make sure you’re paying attention, and then continues to steal from Reservoir Dogs and Basketball Diaries.
I simply don’t know who this movie is for beyond the Russos themselves, who had to prove that they could make a “cheap movie” (which was still more expensive than any apartment you’ve ever lived in) after making so many expensive ones (the budgets of which could have fed all of Syria).
Frankly this “experiment” was a total failure. Cherry is a crushingly dull nothing of a movie with no politics, no sense of itself beyond wearying, secondhand self-awareness, no style, no substance, and not a scene, an angle, a line of dialogue at all worth remembering.
This is the height of vanity — making an awful, boring, epic-in-length-only film about drug addicts to prove you are still serious filmmakers, and coming up with nothing a film student couldn’t have done with a tenth of the budget.
The Russos were given every advantage, every opportunity, a canvas as big as the moon, and they couldn’t come up with an interesting frame. The time for the Russos to retire was before they made You, Me and Dupree in 2006, but I’ll accept now.
Cherry on Apple TV+
Cherry will premiere on Apple TV+ on March 12.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Editor’s note: We originally published this review on February 25, 2021, to coincide with Cherry’s theatrical debut. We updated it to show that the movie is streaming now on Apple TV+.
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.