By Noah Gittell
It’s a little jarring to see Tom Holland, best known for playing the goofy and naive Spider-Man in five Marvel movies, with a needle sticking out of his arm, vomit on his shirt, and wielding a gun against innocent bystanders in “Cherry”, but that’s actually the point. For teenage stars, the transition to a mature film career is hardly assured, and both actors who previously donned the Spidey suit — Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield — have struggled in their post-superhero careers. “Cherry” seems designed to help Holland shake free from his clean-cut image and demonstrate that he can function in the real world.
Except, weirdly, it’s not that much of a change. When we meet him in “Cherry”, he seems just like Peter Parker. He’s robbing a bank at the time, and speaking directly to the camera in that familiar, gentle squeak. “The one thing about robbing banks is you’re mostly robbing women,” he says, “so the last thing you want to be is rude.” Call him your friendly, neighborhood armed robber. From there, we flash back to where his story begins: as a bespectacled college student who falls in love-at-first sight with a classmate, the angelic Emily (Ciara Bravo). A brief courtship is followed by a poor decision. After an ugly argument, he impulsively joins the Army, and is shipped off to Afghanistan to serve as a medic.
To describe the plot further would be to simply rattle off a list of clichés.
Our protagonist finds both a sense of belonging and severe trauma in the Army. His first task is to shove the intestines of an injured soldier back into his body. Back at home, he’s celebrated as a hero but is plagued by nightmares and destructive impulses. His prescription drug use escalates into outright addiction. Emily joins in just so she can tolerate the hell of living with him. They turn to crime to support their habit. Everything unfolds exactly as you expect it to, with nary a twist that can’t be foreseen well in advance.
It’s a purposeful departure not just for Holland but also for directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who helmed “Avengers: Endgame” and several other of the better Marvel films. But while they have changed genres, their skills have not evolved. They revel in the more adult aspects of the story — the blood, guts, and upchuck — like kids watching the naughty channels while their parents are out for the night. They have gotten lost in their newfound freedom from superheroes and spoilers, and forgot to focus on little things, like character, story, and drama.
Even as a showcase for Holland, “Cherry” comes up short. Between his character’s time as a medic and his stint as a junkie, Holland puts himself through an emotional and physical gauntlet, and he ably displays all the emotions required by the plot, but he never builds anything resembling a well-rounded character. Cherry — that’s his name, according to the credits — is an empty vessel; we don’t know anything about his childhood, his parents, or how he became who he is. This would be okay if Holland was able to imply a backstory or even appear three-dimensional. As it is, he’s just a feather in an atomic wind, getting blown from one toxic situation to the next.
It’s a film that fails both in its conception and execution. I don’t know why anyone involved thought it was a good idea to juxtapose the gruesome realities of war and addiction with a slick, ironic style and a protagonist who breaks the fourth wall to crack deadpan witticisms as if he were Ferris Bueller. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
<”Cherry” is in theaters starting February 26 and will stream on AppleTV+ on March 12.>