Tom Holland makes impressive efforts to become unrecognizable in “Cherry”, an ambitious adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel. In this highly regarded book, the author recounted his descent from the security of the middle class and a promising education in his service as an army medic during the Iraq war.
When he returned home, he was ravaged by the survivor’s sleeplessness and guilt. His unresolved trauma led him to become addicted to opiates and ultimately rob banks to support his habit. Walker wrote “Cherry” while serving an 11-year sentence in a Kentucky prison.
That’s the makings of a great movie, which could focus on an era in U.S. history interspersed with irrational choice wars overseas and overwhelming economic and psychological crises in the Midwest Rust Belt ( Walker is from Cleveland, where “Cherry” takes place).
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo – who, like Holland, are best known for their Marvel comic book adaptations – bring that sense of ambition to a tale that is both sprawling and half-too-groomed.
The film opens as Holland’s anonymous character leaves his house to rob one more bank, his voiceover narration and occasional on-camera comments reminiscent of Holden Caulfield turned criminal.
A series of extended flashbacks ensue as to how he got here – a timeline that involves finding his true love, Emily (Ciara Bravo), enlisting in the military, enduring the gruesome horrors of war, and to sink into the equally gruesome horrors of addiction.
His ghostly white skin, his figure reduced to ghostly proportions, Holland banishes his sane Spider-Man character to portray a man whose outward impartiality masks the soul of an anguished poet; more than once he’s less like himself than Ewan McGregor in “Trainspotting,” whose yellowish humor runs through even the most gruesome self-destruction.
The Russo Brothers bring energy and transgressive comedy to scenes that feature vulgar puns on common bank names; “Cherry” was shot and edited with a stylized visual flair, filming their hometown with affectionate familiarity, even when inhabiting its less flattering quarters.
Bravo, as a pretty girl who transforms into a hanging shadow of her old self, brings sympathy and integrity to an otherwise thankless role; she and Holland are utterly convincing as people hang on like so many floating jetsam that barely keep them afloat.
But as laudable and even brave as much of “Cherry” is, it suffers from diminishing returns as it becomes clear that what made Walker’s book great was not the plot and the characters, but the writing itself.
Part ‘Catcher in the Rye’, part ‘Drugstore Cowboy’, Walker’s voice is audible in Holland’s narration, relegating the Russos’ carefully designed sets to illustrations that increasingly desperately attempt to grab the public’s attention. (the effect is underlined by music ranging from Van Morrison to Puccini).
The result is a film that looks like many films in one, here evoking “Jarhead”, there evoking “Requiem for a Dream”, but always keeping its emotional essence at bay, obscured by ever more striking technical flourishes.
As nervous and well done as it is, “Cherry” feels less personal than that of a competition, especially in a rushed and casually final streak. It plays out like an American dream that turns into a nightmare before turning back – right before we wake up and shake it all up.