Producers: Dakota Johnson, Ro Donnelly, Erik Feig, Jessica Switch and Cooper Raiff Director: Cooper Raiff Screenplay: Cooper Raiff Cast: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Vanessa Burghardt, Evan Assante, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann, Raúl Castillo, Odeya Rush, Kelly O’Sullivan, Colton Osorio, Javien Mercado and Amara Pedroso Saquel Distributor: Apple+
Cooper Raiff’s second movie scored well with audiences at Sundance, which makes sense; the festival has always been a haven for shallow little dramedies in which navel-gazing is a dominant factor. It’s also a vanity project par excellence: Raiff wrote the script, directed, stars, and is one of the editors. And he makes his character so wonderfully simpatico that you’re not even surprised when one woman says, gazing into his eyes (the opportunity for one of the many close-ups that emphasize his shaggy cuteness and winning smile), “You are, like, the sweetest person ever!”
Andrew, the recent Tulane graduate Raiff plays, is actually not without fault, but even his failings are somehow endearing; he is, you might say, perfectly imperfect. He wants to work, but doing good things for others at a non-profit. He has a tendency to drink too much, but he’s not a nasty drunk, more gregarious than bellicose. He can get physical, but only when he’s protecting somebody against a bully. He’s dismissive of his strait-laced stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett), but only because he worries that his mother (Leslie Mann) deserves better, and he eventually comes around to appreciate the guy (though only after Greg intervenes in a fight—against bullies, of course). As to his mom, his extreme protectiveness is justified because of her mental difficulties—she’s diagnosed as bipolar, though we hear only of off-screen episodes. To his younger brother David (Evan Assante), he’s free with encouragement and advice, and on the one occasion when he lashes out, he apologizes profusely afterward. He also has a tendency to blurt out inappropriate white lies, but sheepishly retracts them at once.
Perhaps Andrew’s greatest weakness, though, involves his romantic inclinations: on the one hand, even as a kid he had a propensity to fall for older women, as we see in a prologue in which, played by young Javien Mercado, he asked the twenty-something girl (Kelly O’Sullivan) who was a “party starter” at a bar mitzvah he attended for a date (she declined, graciously). He’s also clingy: his college girlfriend (Amara Pedroso Saquel) is going off to Spain on a Fulbright, and he wants to join her there (she’s unenthusiastic).
The various aspects of his character come into play when Andrew chaperones David to a bat mitzvah where he takes the lead in getting the party started and meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Domino’s a good deal older than he, but she’s impressed by the way he connects quickly with Lola, and he’s drawn to her. She’s engaged to a lawyer named Joseph (Raúl Castillo), but he travels a good deal, and even when he’s back she sometimes needs someone to stay with her daughter. Andrew jumps at the chance.
His success in getting the party going also makes him a favorite to do the same at other bar and bat mitzvahs, of which there seem to be an inexhaustible supply in the New Jersey area where he’s crashing temporarily with his family. Since Domino and Lola come to most of them, the gigs also bring him closer to them, and he obviously has feelings for the former although she’s committed to someone else; she, meanwhile, appreciates his help, not only with Lola, who feels comfortable with him, but in getting her through a particularly difficult situation at one party. But she’s ambivalent about encouraging him, for the obvious reasons; and he realizes that, as when he was a kid, his longings might lead to disappointment. He even has a brief fling with Macy (Odeya Rush), a classmate who once seemed unapproachable, even as he attempts to tutor shy David about how to express his feelings to the classmate he has a crush on.
You have to credit Raiff for trying to add some depth to what’s actually a pretty conventional maturing-after-college tale, and for not only portraying Lola with sensitivity but drawing from Burghardt, who’s actually on the spectrum, a performance that’s straightforwardly touching and real, never descending into cloying caricature. He’s not so successful with Johnson, who doesn’t seem entirely at ease, or the other members of the supporting cast. He also earns points for resisting the temptation to succumb to the obvious rom-clichés in tying up the plot threads in the end.
But ultimately “Cha Cha Real Smooth”—not a great title, by the way—feels like a sitcom for people who consider most sitcoms beneath them, and a “watch Andrew grow” story also designed as a means to “watch Cooper grow.” Technically it’s pretty rough—Celine Diano’s production design is basic (though it’s probably Raiff, rather than she, who bears responsibility for the decision to call the mall food court place where Andrew sells hot dogs Meat Stick), and Cristina Dunlap’s cinematography ragged (though the flaws are accentuated by the choppy editing by Raiff and his collaborators Henry Hayes and Colin Patton). The score by Este Haim and Chris Stracey is unobtrusive, which certainly can’t be said of the tracks used in the party sequences.
In the end the movie has its heart in the right place, but like its main character (and its writer-director-star) it seems always to be trying too hard.