In “Cherry,” Tom Holland sports a buzzcut, dead eyes, and a skeevy complexion. In a look-at-my-badass-self reversal from the effusive heroics of the “Spider-Man” films, he plays an Iraq War veteran turned opioid addict turned heroin addict turned bank robber, and he looks zoned-out and strung-out, like Eminem as a fallen Eagle Scout. He gets the cold sweats, he weeps real tears and talks in a phlegmy voice, he contorts his face into a pale mask of pain, and at one point he rubs the top of his noggin and says, “I have this noise in my head…why can’t it stop?” When his girlfriend, also a junkie, abandons him for a spell, he sits in his car and jabs a hypodermic needle into his thigh, over and over again, so that he’ll feel something.
Holland’s character is never named (he’s a real nowhere dude), and in theory it’s the sort of role you could imagine Sean Penn having taken on in the late ’80s or ’90s. Penn, addicted to edge, was always shoring up his Method mojo — and that, in an overblown corporate way, is the mission of “Cherry.” The movie is a double dose of brand extension. For Holland, the motivation is obvious: He’s proving that he’s not just a kid in a spandex suit, a lightweight “escapist” star — he can do the real-deal heavy stuff too. But “Cherry” is also a showy advertisement for its directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, the superstar superhero auteurs of the “Avengers” and “Captain America” films. In “Cherry,” they’re proving their dark-side-of-the-street cred.
Except it all plays as a giant synthetic crock! “Cherry” is based on a semi-autobiographical 2018 novel by Nico Walker, a decorated U.S. Army veteran who served time in prison for bank robbery, and the book was celebrated as a gritty generational rallying cry. The Russo brothers, working in a style of troweled-on extravagance, inflate it into a showreel. They’re trying to think beyond Marvel and display their real-world chops, but what they demonstrate instead is that even with down-in-the-trenches material like this, they still think like fantasists. “Cherry” has the glossy inauthenticity of a bad Tony Scott movie. The Russos treat Walker’s novel as if it were a graphic novel — a layer cake of grunge that’s all frosting.
It starts off as a love story set in college, where Holland’s unnamed hero, a dweeb in glasses and floppy bangs, meets Emily (Ciara Bravo), who plays hard-to-get, then doesn’t, and then does again, saying that she’s heading off to school in Montreal (but only because she’s scared of how deep their love is). This leaves Holland so lost that he enlists in the Army, which allows the Russos to stage a basic-training sequence that’s like a film-brat knockoff of “Full Metal Jacket.” (It’s here that the movie calls Holland a “cherry.”) Then it’s off to the Iraq War, where the Russos can at least draw upon their action chops, staging battle with swooping camerawork and explosive grandiloquence, though this sequence, for all its spilled guts, feels no more authentic than the Vietnam of “Forrest Gump” did. In each case, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the filmmakers are restaging these wars to use them.
Back home (which, by the way, is Cleveland), Holland spirals into PTSD and Oxycontin addiction. He has night panics (“I didn’t sleep. And when I did I dreamt of violence”), and at one point he takes Emily to the theater and yells at someone for wearing an L.L. Bean jacket instead of dressing up (making you wonder whether this is PTSD or “Project Runway”). Yet despite the bad behavior clichés, combat doesn’t seem to have altered him internally.
The problem with “Cherry” is that the movie presents itself as a dread-ridden slice of life, yet almost every moment in it feels based not on experience but on the experience of other movies. The Russos lift flourishes out of everything from “Natural Born Killers” to “Far From Heaven” to Wes Anderson, and they mix in slow motion and bits of opera, with sounds magnified and stylized, and images highlighted with a kind of ’80s music-video cut-in “significance.” Yet they never convince us of the organic truth of the story they’re telling. Holland’s nonstop voiceover narration (“I’m 23 years old and I still don’t understand what it is that people do. It’s as if all of this were built on nothing and nothing were holding all of this together”) indicates how the filmmakers don’t trust the material to take on a life of its own. Instead, every scene says, “Look at the cool way we’re illustrating this!”
Tom Holland isn’t a bad actor, and in “Cherry” he proves his skill set. He touches an array of dissolute looks and moods. Yet there’s no real danger to him. (That’s the difference between a Marvel good boy and a Sean Penn bad boy.) “Cherry,” after dithering around, does find a semblance of over-the-top coherence in its second half, when it turns into a drama of two junkies spiraling into the abyss. It’s like seeing “Sid and Nancy” as a middle-class doomfest staged in the style of “Top Gun.” Holland’s character isn’t just a hopeless addict, he’s a colossally stupid and self-destructive addict. Asked to safeguard a drug dealer’s portable safe, he and Emily end up blasting it open and stealing the small mountain of drugs inside. Why do they do it? So the film can get off on their boneheaded masochistic extravagance.
And I haven’t even talked about the bank robberies! Robbers tend to wear masks, and have plans, because there are these things called surveillance cameras, and also police, that have a way of intruding on the success of crime. But in “Cherry,” Holland just wanders into one Cleveland bank after the next, with no disguise, waving his gun, carrying on weirdly friendly conversations with the tellers (who are all women) as they hand over stacks of bills. And then…nothing. No police pursuit, no repercussions. We realize, of course, that it can’t last, but we also realize, with a sinking feeling, that the Russos must now think they’re making a Tarantino movie. Nope. Not even close. There’s hardly a moment in “Cherry” that’s believable, but the film’s true crime is that there’s hardly a moment in it that’s enjoyable either. The only emotion the movie conveys is being full of itself.