‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’: Recent college grad looks for his destiny in a smart, offbeat film
Cooper Raiff writes, directs and stars as the anxious young man, opposite Dakota Johnson, wonderful as the older woman who sees something admirable in him.
Writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s smart and charming and delightfully offbeat “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a movie very much of the present day, but there’s something almost nostalgic about the self-consciously indie material in that it reminded me of somewhat similarly themed gems such as “Rushmore” (1998), “Igby Goes Down” (1998) and “Tadpole” (1998) — and all of these films are generational descendants of “The Graduate” (1966).
The protagonists of the former three films were eccentric, mildly rebellious, anxious but empathetic teenagers engaging in possibly romantic entanglements with older women, while Raiff’s Andrew is, like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, a recent college grad who is eccentric, mildly rebellious, anxious but empathetic and has a crush on an older woman.
At the age of 22, Andrew sports the kind of beard usually favored by middle-aged men and has a slightly awkward, grows-on-you handsomeness (he could play Adam Scott’s son). Andrew has gone through college, but he has absolutely no idea what he wants to do with his life, so he works a soul-crushing job behind the counter at a fast-food joint called Meat Sticks, pines over a girlfriend who has moved to Barcelona and apparently has moved on from him — and still shares a bedroom in Jersey with his 10-years-younger brother David (Evan Assante), in the home of their stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett), whom they call “Stepdad Greg,” and their mother (Leslie Mann), who is coping with bipolar disorder and is fiercely protective of her sons.
Whatever dreams Andrew might have had as a kid, he’s definitely NOT living those dreams.
Apple presents a film written and directed by Cooper Raiff. Rated R (for language and some sexual content). Running time: 108 minutes. Opening Thursday at local theaters and streaming Friday on Apple TV+.
Chaperoning his brother to one of what appears to be an endless medley of bar and bat mitzvahs in the neighborhood, Andrew meets Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), a new student at David’s school who is autistic, and Lola’s mother Domino (Dakota Johnson), who had Lola at a young age and has raised her on her own but is now engaged to a lawyer named Joseph (Raúl Castillo), who we won’t meet until much later in the story because he spends most of his time in Chicago working on a big case.
As Lola sits in a corner, wearing oversized headphones and working a puzzle, Andrew makes it his mission to get her on the dance floor — and he does it with such sincerity and utterly without condescension, and that’s the moment we’re taken with him, as is Domino. She asks Andrew if he wouldn’t mind babysitting for Lola from time to time, and that could be weird but it’s not. It’s just … something that happens, and something that brings Andrew and Domino close, and as to whether that evolves into a romance, I’ll leave it to you to discover. Suffice to say that, as a writer, the 25-year-old Raiff has an impressive skill set that enables him to simultaneously embrace certain clichés while saying something fresh.
For all of Andrew’s admirable qualities — he’s a fantastic older brother to David and even his unwarranted teasing of Stepdad Greg is laced with an undercurrent of respect for how much Greg loves his mom — he can also be kind of a jerk when his feelings are hurt, or he feels underappreciated. He’s hired as a host for the aforementioned slew of bar/bat mitzvahs and he has a knack for getting the party started, as they say, but he has a bad tendency to drink too much at these events. Not good, Andrew. This leads to some borderline slapstick hijinks and some major laughs, and also a great moment of triumph for Stepdad Greg, who deserves just such a moment.
Raiff and his cinematographer Christina Dunlap serve up appealing visuals throughout, giving the film an authentic look (with Pittsburgh filling in for Jersey) but also some appropriately lush, saturated-colors moments when Andrew sees Domino in a certain light, so to speak. Leslie Mann delivers beautifully nuanced work, though the screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into her character’s condition, while young actors Vanessa Burghardt and Evan Assante are utterly likable and real. Even the smaller parts, e.g., Odeya Rush as a beautiful former classmate of Andrew’s who is also treading water career-wise and is probably a better match for Andrew than Domino, are strongly written and well-acted.
Dakota Johnson continues her string of wonderful performances in quality films (“The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “The High Note,” “The Lost Daughter”) with luminous work here, playing a woman who is almost unbearably sad and lonely at times, but doesn’t really have the luxury of indulging in that because she has a daughter who needs her every waking moment. As an actor, Raiff has an easy, comfortable screen presence. To be sure, he gives himself a plethora of terrific lines and maybe a few too many adoring closeups — but you can’t blame a guy for directing himself to the cusp of stardom, can ya?