If Cha Cha Real Smooth were a person, he’d tell you he’s a nice guy—maybe too nice. He’d likely say that maybe he’s that way because of his mother, whose struggles and lack of support taught him the importance of kindness. He’d be the guy who thinks that enunciating his “t” sounds makes him sound more intelligent. And he’d probably also complain to you about either his obnoxious but harmless stepdad, his inability to find a job that suits his potential, or the fact that even in his most confident moments, he’s wracked with soul-crushing insecurity.
In the follow-up to his 2020 indie Shithouse, writer-direct0r-actor Cooper Raiff plays an existentially burdened 22-year-old college grad who, like so many of us in our early twenties, avoids introspection by refusing to keep his eyes on his own paper. At the start of the film, Andrew moves back in with his mother (Leslie Mann), his stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett), and his little brother. Penniless and desperate, he takes a job at the unforgivably named hot dog stand Meat Sticks before securing a side gig as a “motivational dancer” at parties and gatherings like bar mitzvahs.
Andrew’s problems are those of countless disaffected boys in cinema: no sense of direction, no cool job, and an ex-girlfriend off to Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship (good for her) who refuses to take him along (even better for her!) But the issue with Cha Cha Real Smooth is not that Andrew’s a solipsistic little jerk. (He is, but who among us was not at his age?) It’s that the film through which he moves worships him to the point of losing all perspective. Raiff and his film might assume they can skate by on charm, but it’s hard to say what this film is actually about beyond convincing us of its own central character’s likability.
The saving graces of this film are Domino, a single mother and rumored “bad mom” played by Dakota Johnson, and her autistic daughter, Lola (played by natural newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, who is autistic herself).
Domino first appears at a party Andrew’s working and quickly becomes one of a couple love interests to distract him from his half-hearted quest to save enough money to follow his ex, Maya, to Spain. Lola, meanwhile, becomes an unlikely buddy for Andrew throughout the film; he becomes her babysitter, and she’s happy to oblige given that he’s one of the few people she’s met who can adequately appreciate her hamster, Jerry, and her collection of potato mashers.
As with everyone else, Andrew’s able to charm Domino pretty quickly—in this case, by coming up with a clever bribe to get her daughter to dance.
But the thirtysomething also happens to be engaged to an attorney named Joseph (Raul Castillo)—further complicating Andrew’s fantasy that he and Domino must be soul-mates. At one point, she tells him, “When I’m with you, I feel so alive… But that’s because it’s all possibility. We’re not in a relationship.”
Although Domino’s interest in this ennui-plagued 22-year-old can at times puncture one’s suspension of disbelief, Johnson’s quietly formidable energy and gift for enigmatic facial expressions are the best check viewers will get against Cha Cha’s total worship of its protagonist. As much as Andrew wants to convince himself that he has some wisdom of his own to share with Domino, she knows better.
Even despite the complexity of Cha Cha’s “will they, won’t they,” however, the film itself unfolds with a self-satisfied air that never feels wholly earned.
Although Domino’s interest in this ennui-plagued 22-year-old can at times puncture one’s suspension of disbelief, Johnson’s quietly formidable energy and gift for enigmatic facial expressions are the best check viewers will get against Cha Cha’s total worship of its protagonist.
Sure, there are gestures toward real sincerity—moments in which the odd character calls Andrew out on his bullshit or our floundering hero himself considers the possibility that some of his problems might be of his own creation. But the longer one Cha Cha’s, the harder it becomes to ignore how narrow this film’s goal seems to be in comparison to its self-perceived gravity; it has all the trappings of a deep coming-of-age exploration (glum indie music, saturated dance sequences, tearful conversations about life and love) without any real depth or stakes.
Andrew might be aimless, but things always seem to fall into place with him—whether or not he’s done anything to make them happen. He’s financially troubled only to the extent that he has to live with his well-off parents, who seem fine with letting him hang around even as he insults them. He somehow has friends despite randomly spouting outright lies like “Sometimes I think I’m autistic” to ingratiate himself to new people. No matter what this overgrown child seems to do, people always forgive him—and, often, offer him kindness in return for the insults.
It would be one thing if Andrew even felt believably immature. Instead, his shortcomings feel contrived—curated to feel as harmless and forgivable as possible. Somehow the same guy who can’t listen to his mother giving him career advice without yelling “stop it!” over and over like a toddler melting down in a Disney World bathroom also has the emotional insight to tell his would-be lover, “I feel like there are things that you, like, just don’t say to me. And I can’t tell whether you’re, like, holding back a desire to be close or a desire to be distant.” Okay, then!
As pensive as it might want to seem, Cha Cha Real Smooth ultimately feels inextricably tied to (and in fact limited by) someone’s ego, be it that of its creator or the character he plays. The film is pleasant enough to avoid controversy—even if that dedication to pleasantness over substance and watchability over complexity might be its most pernicious flaw. Still, in the Year of Our Lord 2022, this writer can’t help but wonder: Would the bar be this low for any other character?