Cha Cha Real Smooth ★★1/2
Availability: Streaming on Apple TV; for future expanded availability, see JustWatch here.
Doing Your 20s
Charismatic Andrew, the center of writer, director, and actor Cooper Raiff’s second feature, is impossible not to like. As a bar mitzvah party-starter, aka “jig conductor,” he’s a 21st-century Music Man, a pied piper loved by all, except those prickish parents who don’t appreciate his bawdiness. He’s also mature enough, even at 22, to understand and develop a relationship with an autistic (albeit high-functioning) teenager, Lola.
Domino (a gorgeous, irresistible Dakota Johnson, now 32), changes the arc of the traditional rom-com.
It's Lola’s mother, Domino (a gorgeous, irresistible Dakota Johnson, now 32), also fine in last year’s “The Lost Daughter”), who changes the arc of the traditional “immature man won’t commit to worthy woman who wants him” rom-com. Andrew has demonstrated his people skills and maturation potential and wants to commit; yet he is also fresh out of Tulane University (he wears the school’s sweatshirt), works part-time at the fast-food outlet “Meat Sticks,” and shares a bedroom at home with his pubescent brother (one of many extreme age differences). Domino understands what it really means to parent a child with needs. And Andrew is just too young. We know he’s too young as early as the opening scene before the credits, when, as a 10-year-old, he asks a teacher for a date. “Oh, honey,” she says, “I’m old.”
Andrew (Cooper Raiff), left,
is hardly the model of maturity.
At 22, he lives at home with his
much younger brother
David (Evan Assante),
and wears the vest of the
fast-food outlet he works for
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” suffers from “telling” rather than “showing.”
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” suffers from “telling” rather than “showing.” The showing it does do is of Andrew’s character, and that’s a fine show. Played by Raiff, Andrew is magnetic. His extroverted dancing, cajoling, and joy at being in the world are infectious. It’s Domino whose needs bring him, and the film, down to earth. We’re told she has periods of depression, that Lola is a burden she must bear stoically, that her fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo) is right for her. We are shown none of this.
The secondary characters are mostly caricatures used for Andrew’s punch lines or for schmaltzy asides. His stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett) is “an unhappy pharmaceutical sales rep” until he’s more than that. We’re told his mother (Leslie Mann) is bi-polar, and we’re told he’s had a rough childhood, until a late scene where he waxes eloquent about what a fantastic mother she has been and the perfect childhood he had (also told, not shown). Then there’s the sometimes-date Maya (Amara Pedroso), whom he seems to go to for sex when he can’t get it from Domino.
Dakota Johnson, at right in photo, is gorgeous and pragmatic,
a wise mother to
her autistic daughter,
Lola (a sensitive portrayal by
Lola is the exception to the poorly-drawn secondary characters. In her first acting role, Vanessa Burghardt, who describes herself as “on the spectrum,” gives a sensitive portrayal of an autistic teen, one who excels at number and word games, her headphones on, and who speaks in complete sentences without contractions.
Many will find this slow-moving, feel-good movie delightful family fare, a few X-rated words notwithstanding.
There’s a powerful love story here, even if an improbable one given the age differences. “You need to do your 20s,” the pragmatist, Domino, wisely tells the romantic, Andrew. Many will find this slow-moving, feel-good movie delightful family fare, a few X-rated words notwithstanding.
The upending of the usual rom-com arc, decent acting, and a script with some clever writing make one want to cheer a film that teeters on the edge of treacle. Some critics conclude it stops short of soap opera and find it charming (it won the U.S. Dramatic Film Audience Award at Sundance and appeared on the “best of 2022” lists of many Western New York Film Critics Association members ). Others have found it slips into exaggerated melodrama and pronounce “Cha Cha Real Slow” simply another sophomoric failure; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times gave it 20 out of 100. 2 Film Critics “teeters” toward the latter camp. Maybe 50.
Director: Cooper Raiff
Starring: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann, Raúl Castillo.
Runtime: 107 minutes
Country: United States
Other Awards: 2 wins, including Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Film, at the Sundance Film Festival, and 2 other nominations.