Cooper Raiff’s camera, it must be said, loves Cooper Raiff. It loves the way his eyes twinkle, the way his hair flops, the way his head bobs and sways awkwardly when he talks. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Cameras should love their subjects, at least a little bit. But in Cha Cha Real Smooth, a comedy-drama that the 25-year-old Raiff wrote, directed, produced, and stars in, we keep waiting for the moment when his character will become something more than a figure of shallow adoration, when his story (such as it is) will work its way to something resembling emotional or narrative cohesion. And for the most part, it never comes.
Cha Cha Real Smooth was one of the great success stories of this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, winning an audience award and gaining enough accolades to score a pricey Apple TV+ distribution deal. These kinds of ambling, amiable “dramedies” are often catnip to Sundance audiences and acquisition execs, but they tend to make barely a ripple upon release. It’ll be interesting to see if Cha Cha Real Smooth fares better — or if, in the age of streaming, we can even accurately gauge how it’s “fared” at all. Critics seem to like it still, though there are some signs that it might be a bit more divisive than expected. (A New York Times review last week from Manohla Dargis was so brutal that it actually went viral.)
Your tolerance for Cha Cha Real Smooth will likely hinge on your tolerance for Raiff himself as a cinematic presence. His Andrew, a recent college grad who’s returned to his New Jersey hometown to mope, pine, and work at a grim-looking fast-food establishment called Meat Sticks, is a fast-talker — but not of the streetwise or ambitious kind. Words come bursting out of Andrew as if he’s mortified at the mere possibility of an awkward pause. He jokes; he observes; he apologizes; he jokes some more. His inability to tolerate discomfort or silence does make him fun at parties, however, and after he attends a bat mitzvah and impresses the parents with his ability to get all the shy young kids out onto the dance floor, he lands a gig as a “party starter,” going around suburban Jersey and breathing life into assorted gatherings.
Much of Cha Cha Real Smooth follows Andrew’s relationship with Domino (Dakota Johnson), a vaguely troubled, 30-something mother who takes a shine to him after he manages to get her autistic daughter Lola (a terrific Vanessa Burghardt) dancing. Andrew’s constant insistence that everyone has a good time — his desperate, needy energy — makes for a sharp contrast with the melancholy Domino and the reserved Lola. We’re genuinely curious to see how this relationship might progress. Alas, it doesn’t progress so much as just go on, proceeding through overfamiliar story beats, with little sense of forward momentum or character development. Everybody seems to be there mostly to emphasize Andrew’s underlying decency.
Meanwhile, the manic insincerity of Raiff’s delivery drains every moment in the picture — even some of its more intimate, dramatic ones — of any weight or power. It’s not that he doesn’t seem like a nice guy; it’s just that nothing he says or does seems particularly genuine. It doesn’t help either that, as Domino, Johnson goes a little too often to that pursed-lips acting method of hers. This feels like a failure of direction more than of performance; after her marvelous work in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (a movie in which she actually had less screen time), it’s disappointing to see the actress given so little to work with. The film seems to be interested in Domino primarily as a vessel of sadness against which the hero can prove his worth. She’s not the only one.
The rest of Cha Cha Real Smooth feels like a checklist of coming-of-age elements. Andrew has a tense relationship with his mother’s new husband, Greg (played by Brad Garrett, another fine, award-winning actor given shockingly little to do), but this conflict isn’t explored in any meaningful way; it feels like the two characters are at odds because, well, that’s just how these types of characters are supposed to be in these types of movies. Andrew has a college girlfriend who is studying in Barcelona, and whom he wants to join in Spain. He’s supposed to be smitten with her, but when he later sees an Instagram post from her with another man, I realized I had completely forgotten who this woman was. There’s also a half-hearted non-subplot about Andrew trying to teach his younger brother (Evan Assante) how to get that first kiss from his (unseen) girlfriend. But again, it’s dropped so quickly that, later, when the younger brother beams about the fact that he’s gotten that first kiss, I realized it had slipped my mind that this was a thing in the movie. Odeya Rush shows up a couple of times as a friend with benefits, and sure enough, I kept forgetting about her, too. Either I’m losing my mind, or Cooper Raiff should have maybe spent a little more time on this script.
Maybe it’s all intentional. Maybe it’s all supposed to be indicative of the emotional transience of youth. But what’s ultimately so disappointing about Cha Cha Real Smooth is its shallow vision of growing up, which might explain why the protagonist does so little of it. The film seems to view adulthood as a series of bleak compromises one must make for security and stability — a 25-year-old’s idea of what the rest of life must be like. Andrew works his way to an uneasy truce with the notion that the adults must ultimately move on without him. By then, any interesting ideas this film once had have been scuttled by its aw-shucks narcissism.
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