The halting narration of Cherry (Tom Holland), a disillusioned boy with no marketable skills, overlays the first few acts of the Russo brothers’ new film, and you have to wonder if you’re watching a gritty adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s iconic novel. That’s not what you’re watching, of course, because the acclaimed author was very adamant that his work would not be adapted for the screen. What you are watching is the disastrously war-torn crime drama “Cherry,” based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by a man who is not outlandishly different from Holden Caulfield of “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Directors Anthony and Joseph Russo seem to be looking for retribution against the king of the crime drama with “Cherry,” following up on Martin Scorcese’s “Marvel movies aren’t cinema” criticism with a film that encroaches on the auteur’s territory. Five minutes in, however, it’s obvious the brothers missed in a style worse than their “Avengers” work, blandly butchering themselves with a backfiring, 40-million-dollar grasp at credibility.
Their whiff could most suitably be called a love story — “most suitably” because there isn’t much cohesion to “Cherry” at all. It’s a boring boy-meets-girl story that’s adolescently hormonal and uninterested in itself, a film that shines dimly in its explosion-ridden examination of war and an uninspired story of addiction high on its own supply. “Cherry,” broken into six screechingly distinct chapters, follows the troubled Cherry from university to war to jail to happily ever after, with a disjointed plot filling the spaces — the many, many spaces — in between. The mess, which is not unlike the flashy persona of a hypebeast with too much money to spare, vainly implies that a longer runtime (an extravagant 141 minutes) hastens profundity.
Unfortunately for the Russos, that length only hastens viewers’ impatience. The small redemptions of “Cherry” — meta, diegetically or otherwise — are cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, whose capability enables a film so concerned with appearances; and Holland, who unveils new range in a turning point of his career. The two embark on rescue missions from above and below the line in an effort that could never salvage the film’s fragmented script.
At the film’s onset, Cherry is searching for connection in all the wrong places. His vapid girlfriend, whose personality presages an attention-seeking film, was never doing it for him to begin with. So, he goes looking for something new, meeting classmate and future wife/teacher/addict Emily (Ciara Bravo) in a wholly contrived setting. They’re edgy, but lack the development to be avant-garde; later, they sit in a graveyard, Emily’s head in Cherry’s lap, while saying things like, “Can you remember the one you loved the most” and “Sometimes I feel like love doesn’t actually exist.” This sort of rote philosophizing permeates the rest of the film in different forms, leaving just enough space for two blips of substance to sneak in, as if against the filmmakers’ wishes, which are snuffed out under an avalanche of mediocrity.
The rest of “Cherry” drifts by, sometimes insipidly, but mostly lifelessly, like a dead man’s float. Dopey Cherry tumbles into doped Cherry. Along the way, the film confronts masculinity and American imperialism in an ambling betrayal of the “Catcher” undercurrents, as much a phony as all the fakes that Holden and Cherry despise. The morbidly unengrossing chapters stretch into infinity, manhandling sincerity with an inauthentic flair overdone by heavy-handed editing. Boy-meets-girl becomes a play on Bonnie and Clyde with a who’s-who of addicts and dealers, and a story about two out-of-control people careens off the rails itself.
This reductive crime drama centers on a complex and ruinously aimless couple — an opportunity wasted on the Russo brothers, victims both of poetic karma and their own tragically inept work. Mr. Scorcese, please take the wheel.