To say that the launch of the Apple TV+ streaming service has been odd is an understatement, and the release of the Russo Brothers’ Cherry makes it only more so. Arriving back in 2019 with the belly flop of their big draw, The Morning Show, and the muted launch of their film division following the scandals that emerged in the wake of the premiere of The Banker. Since then, they’ve had muted yet fervent fanbases emerge surrounding certain shows (For All Mankind, Dickinson), a number of interesting, if not necessarily subscriber-driving, films premiere, and one outright mega success in Ted Lasso. But late last year, an interesting controversy arose surrounding Apple’s self-censorship of the programming on its platform — not only does the tech giant care about which characters can be seen using its devices on-screen in other filmmakers’ works, but even Tim Apple himself demanding that the makers of his service’s content “not be so mean” in the construction of their shows and films. No sex, profanity, or graphic violence: It makes sense why you’d choose a Tom Hanks movie as your flagship film acquisition.
Perhaps the very public criticism of Apple’s self-imposed Hays Code stirred them to acquire a film like Cherry, a nihilistic yet flippant journey into the heart of a soldier-turned-addict-turned-bank-robber that is, in practice, like hiring the people who made Branded to direct both Full Metal Jacket and Requiem for a Dream. It certainly has all the gore and swearing you could want, both lifting imagery from real photographs of charred corpses on the battlefields in Iraq while including a shot taken from the inside of Spider-Man’s asshole. But, then again, when you’ve made the highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation), it seems even Apple will afford you a little bit of leeway to have your name blaring from all corners of a customer’s Apple TV or MacBook or iPhone or iPad, to draw those eyes away from the other social media companies demanding your attention’s absolute fielty. At that point, the question really becomes “Will they like what they see when they click on that notification?” to which the answer is a resounding “No.” Cherry is a bloated, unwieldy two-and-a-half-hour reminder that the Russos have done great work — be it in Marvel or on Community or Arrested Development — when someone else is calling all of the shots.
Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Cherry tells the story of, well, Cherry (Tom Holland), a meek-ish college kid who likes hanging with shitheads, doing xanny and ecstasy, and going to the kind of hideously cinematic frat parties that you typically find in a Michael Bay movie — did we even have bisexual lighting back in 2002? Anyway, he falls in love with Emily (Ciara Bravo, cracking that Disney mold), one of his classmates, and the pair have a typically torrid college romance. One day, Emily tells Cherry that she’s gonna move to Montreal for school, ostensibly to get away from him, to which Cherry gets angsty about it and, rashly, enlists in the Army as a medic. It’s only after they reconcile that Emily tells him she never actually intended to head up to Quebec and our dude realizes he’s made a tremendous mistake. He sees combat that next year, and the experience, understandably, traumatizes him. When he returns home to his loving wife and idiot buddies, he starts mainlining Xanax, which gives way to Oxycotin (given to him by a friend and then legally funneled to him by a military doctor), which gives way to heroin. Emily, unwilling to put up with his junkie ways, decides it’d be better to switch than fight, and gets addicted along with him. It’s then that Cherry starts robbing banks, and, yes, shit goes haywire.
In the first scenes of the film, after the “in medias res” prologue (did I mention this is the kind of film that has a prologue, chapters and an epilogue?), you can understand why the Russos chose Holland for the role beyond the fact that they’re intimately familiar with his career: his fresh-faced, cherubic manner would be a natural fit for a character who begins an innocent and mild-mannered dude — sure, he looks a little young initially, but, then again, this is Hollywood, where the Spider-Man before him was nearing his mid-thirties when he took on the role. But the film lives and dies on whether or not you can believe him transitioning to its back half, where he’s barking orders at tellers with a snub-nose, while his two sunken eyes, obscured behind dark glasses, dart across the bank, beads of sweat rolling over the scabs on his cheeks. And, to the surprise of absolutely no one, it’s D.O.A., and Holland is ultimately the wrong man for the job, though the efforts he goes to try and be that person are nearly Herculean and worthy of commendation in their own right. No casting director seems to understand that he’s an extremely gifted comic actor, stuck in action movies by virtue of his one big role, and that he, perhaps, would excel in high school films in which he didn’t have to put on the tights and fight the Sinister Six. He’s Michael J. Fox, not Matthew Modine. Nor is he Ray Liotta, though he’s saddled with a frighteningly annoying narration regardless.
Yet, it’s not like the Russos do him any favors behind the camera. Cherry attempts to capture a kind of flippancy endemic to early-’90s cinema, where one could have been lauded for being provocative by twisting “Citibank” into “Shitty Bank,” while trying, at the same time, to hold the pompous gravitas of being an awards-hungry message film. It’s astonishingly over-directed, beginning with the fish-eye focus that attempts to capture the swooning nature of a blossoming romance and continuing through the film in the most irritating ways. Aspect ratio change? Check. Text on screen? Check. Cut-away gags following a variety of characters we’ll never see again? Check. There’s even an extended in-joke to their time on Community, much like how they had a Bluth truck hidden in the background of the airport fight in Captain America: Civil War, when our protagonists decide to celebrate a lengthy score by eating fresh at a Subway knock-off. Perhaps the main problem is that the Russos don’t particularly have any new or decent ideas to present to us in the telling of this story. That’s not to say that Walker’s story isn’t powerful, or that it shouldn’t be part of the point that his descent isn’t exactly an uncommon one, no matter how much tell ourselves that it isn’t, but, rather, in their desire to grasp the laurels of “serious filmmaking,” they’ve made a functionally and fundamentally generic movie that thinks it’s a groundbreaking one.
Regardless of the Russos, who have proven themselves to be capable producers with films like Extraction and 21 Bridges, and will presumably be able to slink away from this unharmed, it’ll be the tech giant that bears the brunt of this blunder. It’s almost tempting to wholly think of Cherry as another one of Apple’s gaffes rather than the absolute failure that it is, that it’ll one day be listed alongside the Newton, bending iPhone, touch bar, butterfly keyboard, and The Morning Show on a Verge list of their most memorable mishaps. Perhaps that’s because, for all of its “fuck the system” posturing, it’s a skin-deep attempt to grapple with issues that even great filmmakers have failed at doing so that leaves such a bad taste in one’s mouth they’ll believe that they have to start Ted Lasso in order to wash the taste out of their mouths. And, sadly, that may be the exception the company needs to prove their rules.