Tom Holland goes to impressive lengths to become unrecognizable in “Cherry,” an ambitious adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel. In that highly regarded book, the author recounted his descent from middle-class security and a promising education to his service as an Army medic in the Iraq War; when he returned home he was wracked with insomnia and survivor’s guilt. His unaddressed trauma led him to opiate addiction and, eventually, robbing banks to support his habit. Walker wrote “Cherry” while serving an 11-year sentence in a Kentucky prison.
It’s the stuff of a great movie, one that could concentrate an era of American history bracketed by irrational wars of choice overseas and crushing economic and psychological crises throughout the Midwest Rust Belt (Walker is from Cleveland, where “Cherry” is set). Directors Joe and Anthony Russo — who, like Holland, are best known for their Marvel comic book adaptations — bring that sense of ambition to bear on a tale that’s both sprawling and too neat by half.
The film opens as Holland’s unnamed character leaves his house to rob one more bank, his voice-over narration and occasional comments to the camera evoking Holden Caulfield gone criminally amok. What ensues is a series of extended flashbacks explaining how he got here — a chronology that involves finding his true love, Emily (Ciara Bravo), enlisting in the military, enduring the grisly horrors of war and sinking into the equally grisly horrors of addiction.
His skin a ghostly white, his frame whittled down to wraithlike proportions, Holland banishes his wholesome Spider-Man persona to portray a man whose outward dispassion masks the soul of an anguished poet; more than once, he looks less like himself than Ewan McGregor in “Trainspotting,” whose jaundiced humor bleeds through even the most ghastly self-destruction. The Russo brothers bring energy and transgressive comedy to scenes that feature vulgar puns on common bank names; “Cherry” has been shot and edited with stylized visual flair, filming their hometown with affectionate familiarity, even when they’re inhabiting its least flattering precincts.
Bravo, as a pretty girl who morphs into a strung-out shadow of her former self, brings sympathy and integrity to an otherwise thankless role; she and Holland are utterly convincing as people hanging on to each other like so much floating jetsam that is keeping them each barely afloat.
But as commendable and even brave as much of “Cherry” is, it suffers from diminishing returns as it becomes clear that what made Walker’s book great wasn’t the plot and characters, but the writing itself. Part “Catcher in the Rye,” part “Drugstore Cowboy,” Walker’s voice is audible in Holland’s narration, relegating the Russos’ carefully designed set pieces to the role of illustration that tries ever more desperately to retain the audience’s attention (the effect is underscored by music that ranges from Van Morrison to Puccini). The result is a movie that feels like many films being shoehorned into one, here evoking “Jarhead,” there evoking “Requiem for a Dream,” but always keeping its emotional essence at a distance, obscured by ever more arresting technical flourishes.
As nervy and well-made as it is, “Cherry” feels less personal than pageant-like, especially in a rushed and glibly perfunctory final sequence. It unfolds like an American dream that becomes a nightmare, before switching back again — just before we wake up and shake the whole thing off.
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Two and a half stars. Rated R. Available on Apple TV Plus. Contains graphic drug abuse, disturbing and violent images, pervasive crude language and sexuality. 141 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.