Cha Cha Real Smooth tries so hard to be sincere. The second feature by writer-director-actor Cooper Raiff (after 2020’s Shithouse) is a coming-of-age narrative that doesn’t feature any outward villains and doesn’t judge any of its characters. Its protagonist, Andrew (Raiff), is akin to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate: He just graduated from college with little idea of what to do with his life. In his last summer before firmly stepping into adulthood, he must mature if he hopes to find love.
This is a story written and directed by a 23-year-old. That reality defines Cha Cha Real Smooth’s truest virtue (blissful naïveté) and its grandest flaw — a blithering unawareness of reality. It’s a film defined by its myopic, narrow bandwidth.
Shithouse is a college comedy about a lonely freshman trying to connect with people. With Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff moves the timeline forward a few years to navigate a familiar type of post-graduate malaise. Andrew moves back in with his doting mom (Leslie Mann) and his laconic stepfather, Greg (Brad Garrett). He spends his days working at a fast-food place called Meat Sticks, and his nights sleeping on the bedroom floor of his dorky little brother, David (Evan Assante). Andrew has always had terrible luck with women, especially older, more mature women. An early, charming scene witnesses a preteen Andrew approaching a woman after a bar mitzvah. She lets him down politely. A decade later, his college sweetheart has left him and headed to Europe, and Andrew is devastated, unsure whether to chase her or move on.
After a few local New Jersey moms notice Andrew’s bacchanalian talents, he becomes a party-starter for bar and bat mitzvahs. The liminal settings provide a fascinating frame for Andrew’s maturation, and bring him into contact with the enchanting Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Andrew sees himself as a white knight, and he quickly embeds himself in Domino’s world as a savior. But life isn’t so simple, a lesson the film is begging to teach Andrew. But Raiff feels ill-equipped to land that message within in the facile confines of this story.
In a knottier film, Andrew would be the villain, pursuing Domino although he knows she’s engaged to Joseph (Raúl Castillo). But Joseph is always traveling, and he doesn’t seem like a good guy; he’s cold and jealous and often belittles Domino. Andrew also knows Domino is battling depression, and in some ways, he believes they can fix each other’s apparent loneliness. He becomes a brotherly figure for Lola, and uses the bar and bat mitzvahs as settings to see Domino.
Raiff tries to walk the line between genuinely caring and bracingly selfish, but only the latter feeling comes through. Raiff doesn’t play Andrew with a malicious bone in his body; his awkward self-insertion in Domino’s life is a mistake by a dumb kid who doesn’t know any better. But that’s a big pill to swallow, at least for viewers cynical enough to question the ways Raiff excuses his character’s behavior.
It doesn’t help that Raiff isn’t a particularly captivating lead. He lacks the range to imbue a messy character like Andrew with enough depth to rise above the saccharine. The late-night conversations Andrew and Domino share, where they spill their inner fears and express soft intimacy, don’t entirely capture the inherent sensual danger of these scenes, mostly because Raiff has only one expression: surprise. In heavier scenes, his character doesn’t ring as true.
Too often, in Raiff’s script, the emotions are cosmetic. Apart from Domino, the characters say exactly what’s on their mind. Topics such as bullying and mental health are stressed, but while Raiff does genuinely appear to care about these ideas, they make it into the film almost exclusively as checked boxes. Raiff isn’t really interested in Domino’s personhood, so viewers learn nothing concrete about her marriage. There’s a selfishness to his gaze that’s intended, and should engender complicated interpretations of him. But Raiff loves Andrew too much to peer through his uglier side.
Raiff’s narrative is bloated — the movie runs 107 minutes, a solid 15 of which could easily be cut — but it does have some charm. Burghardt provides Lola with a rich inner life, Assante is a wonky ham who’s so uncool it’s adorable, and the stoic Garrett never misses. But none of these, despite the actors’ best efforts, ever feel like real people, least of all Domino, who’s more a vibe than a person. No one reacts as you’d expect them to. When Joseph finally confronts Andrew, the emotional fissure poked and prodded by this movie results in a muted combustion. It’s another example of Raiff liking Andrew too much to fully interrogate his transgressions. Instead, he turns to a couple of false endings that further instill his character as empathetic but misguided.
It’s clear why so many critics have found Cha Cha Real Smooth endearing: It’s comfort cinema. There are no sharp judgments, no interrogation that pierces beneath the surface. Its elementary truths wrap around viewers like a warm blanket, reminding them of how cold the world can be, and how warm it could be with better people. But Andrew isn’t that better person. And the film’s unwillingness to wholly grapple with that reality brings Cha Cha Real Smooth to a grinding halt.
Cha Cha Real Smooth debuts in limited theatrical release and on Apple TV Plus on June 17.