The current Spider-Man and directors of “Avengers: Endgame” reunite on “Cherry,” but that’s the only conspicuously super thing about this grim adaptation of the bestselling book. Tom Holland’s kinetic performance is impressive, but it’s in the service of an uneven film that too self-consciously works at mirroring the form of a novel.
Holland’s title character experiences a sweeping arc of dysfunction, beginning as a student in Ohio. He falls in love, joins the Army, endures basic training and the horrors of war, and comes home pretty messed up, rapidly descending into addiction and crime in order to finance his habit.
Densely narrated by the protagonist, “Cherry” has the familiar qualities of movies about broken middle-class dreams, promises unkept and desperation. The young man and his beloved Emily (Ciara Bravo, a one-time Nickelodeon star) fall hard and fast for each other, marry young and go through hell, the question being whether they can survive together, or indeed at all.
The film possesses a darkly comic streak – there’s a Coen-brothers-type energy to the ineptitude of some of Cherry’s criminal contacts – but for the most part the tone is bleak and the drug use graphic, reflecting how bad decisions and misfortune cascade upon each other. He’s a latter-day rebel without much of a cause, a Springsteen song come to life.
For Holland, the sweeping nature of the part – which begins in 2002 and overlaps with an arc of Iraq-war history – surely represented a hard-to-resist showcase, following his turn in another dark drama, Netflix’s “The Devil All the Time” with Robert Pattinson. If the fresh-faced actor wants to ensure he’s not going to wind up typecast as Peter Parker, he’s taking the initiative and then some.
Similarly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo follow the epic grandeur of their extended stretch in the Marvel universe with a gritty, deeply intimate character study, eliciting strong performances from Holland, Bravo and the assorted losers and miscreants they encounter, without a computer-generated hero in sight.
For all that, “Cherry” almost can’t help but feel as if it’s stringing together cinematic cliches, from war movies to crime capers. The same goes for the portentous narration – lines like “Sometimes I feel like I’ve already seen everything that’s gonna happen” – and the way the chapters partition the story in spanning his service and its aftermath.
Ultimately, there’s a strong sense of this being the kind of movie that directors and actors seek out after an “Endgame”-like success, testing the parameters of their craft and appeal in a venue as far from superhero escapism as they can get.
Yet if “Cherry” offered a liberating creative stretch for its principals, it’s less of one for its audience – notable for its ambitions and to chart Holland’s maturation as an actor, but ultimately, a potent shot of star power that doesn’t quite get under your skin.
“Cherry” premieres Feb. 26 in select theaters and March 12 on Apple TV+. It’s rated R.