On a superficial level, Cha Cha Real Smooth is extremely similar to Shithouse, Cooper Raiff’s debut from 2020.
Raiff once again writes, directs, and stars in a film about a sensitive young man who has a strong relationship with his mother and younger sibling; he once again hits it off with a woman who is, in many ways, his opposite, and who challenges Raiff’s character to find greater happiness in the current time and place when his heart is elsewhere; and both reckon with a bittersweet love hangover and an uncertain romantic future.
The difference, this time, is that Cha Cha Real Smooth feels like a typical indie dramedy where Shithouse was bracing; any ambiguity is tossed aside in favor of broad, lampshaded themes. Raiff’s complex vision of a radically soft masculinity is flattened into an outgoing, lovable goofball. But if Cha Cha Real Smooth is less incisive than Raiff’s debut, it’s certainly more accessible, and will probably do big numbers. And I’m fine with that: for as much as this feels like a safe sophomore effort, it’s still charming and excellently made.
Andrew (Raiff) is a recent college grad whose more successful girlfriend is off in Barcelona. Andrew has little to do except chaperone his younger brother at bar mitzvahs, where he proves an effective hype man for thirteen-year-olds and their deep-pocketed parents. At one of these, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), the former teen mom of the autistic Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Domino’s age isn’t said explicitly, but she seems to be in her early thirties, though much older in spirit, as if she’s faced the cumulative life struggles of someone much older. Domino recruits Andrew to babysit Lola, and it’s no surprise when Andrew and Domino start to hit it off despite their very different phases of life.
The movie gradually ratchets up the tension between Johnson and Raiff, who is once again as good in front of the camera as he is behind it. In fact, the entire cast is excellent. Johnson lends Domino a complexity and magnetism to a character who could have been miserable in worse hands. Leslie Mann, Raúl Castillo, Brad Garrett, Odeya Rush, and a few others do some great supporting work even when the writing trips over itself.
The biggest problem with Cha Cha Real Smooth is the writing in the third act: Pretty much every climactic twist is preordained and assumes that something bittersweet is automatically profound. To be fair, some of it is — Andrew’s relationship with his own family is pretty moving, in particular. But it still feels a bit on the nose, and not helped by some self-serving indulgence in the direction by Raiff. (Much like Shithouse suffered from an unneeded coda, the last few minutes here give us a time jump that diminishes what little thematic ambivalence remained.)
It must be said that Raiff is really good at telling stories like this. The characters feel immediately fully-formed and there’s always a fun crackle to the dialogue. He’s got a mature, immersive visual sense given the genre and his level of experience; the party scenes in particular are vibrant. I hope he keeps making lightweight dramedies, but I also hope he gets a little bit more edge next time around.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film