Will somebody please continue to give two-time filmmaker Cooper Raiff the resources he needs to make whatever movies he wants while firmly and in perpetuity revoking his titling privileges? “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” the sweet, sincere, superbly played new film from the director of the also great, also horribly titled “S—house,” is a delight, and deserves a lot better than a name that to anyone unfamiliar with the lyrics of the 2000 DJ Casper novelty hit “Cha Cha Slide,” must sound like an ad jingle for itch cream.
Then again, perhaps Raiff just responds well to the challenge of making intensely likable silk purses out of outwardly unappealing sow’s ears. “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” after all, is exactly what a Sundance indie about a preternaturally decent but directionless 20-something, middle-class, college-educated white guy who falls for the single mother of an autistic daughter while helping his younger brother engineer a deeply respectful first kiss and working as a bar mitzvah “party starter” should be called, in order to elicit the eye rolls its logline ostensibly merits. Add to that meshugas that the director casts himself as the haplessly good-natured star and Dakota freaking Johnson as the effortlessly dazzling woman who responds to his fumbling flirtations, and for even an only mildly jaded 2022 viewer, alarm bells must sound.
But wait! Retrieve your eyeballs from the dusty corner into which they may have rolled and pop them back in. The film is a charmer, and Raiff, against the significant odds he sets himself, a remarkably winning presence — imagine a Zach Braff type whom you don’t necessarily want to see fall in a moat. As the movie dances right up to the conventions of this well-worn genre, then deftly slides (To the left! To the right!) to avoid them, you might just find yourself clapping along in spite of it all being terminally uncool. Uncool can be a lot of fun.
That’s a fact innately understood by Andrew (Raiff), a 22-year-old college graduate with a degree in marketing, a departing Fulbright-scholar girlfriend and no real life expertise beyond being adept at parties. Perhaps this talent, and a tendency to crush on women a little older than him, dates back to one he attended as a tween, when Andrew, played as a kid by Javien Mercado who somehow has exactly the same lost-puppy eyes as Raiff, became smitten with the young woman charged with getting that party to rock its G-rated socks off. In the car on the way home, as he pines for his newly found and just as newly lost love, his mother (a sparkling, soulful Leslie Mann) clambers into the backseat to comfort him.
It’s a role she’s still fulfilling a decade later, despite her own loosely outlined instability, when Andrew has moved back in with her and stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett) whom he dislikes. Sharing a room with his adoring younger brother David (Evan Assante, exactly cute enough) and working a McJob at an establishment called Meat Sticks, Andrew is waiting for his life to start. Suddenly, it seems to.
Bringing David to a friend’s bar mitzvah, Andrew impresses the attending parents by getting the lifeless party going, including coaxing solitary, bullied Lola (a wonderful debut turn from neurodivergent actress Vanessa Burghardt) and her wary, attentive mother Domino (Johnson) onto the dance floor. Andrew bonds with Lola, which leads to a babysitting gig, which in turn leads to a few increasingly intimate encounters with Domino. And they really do have chemistry, with Johnson, once again proving to be perhaps her generation’s foremost portrayer of beautiful, complicated women whose air of hard-won melancholy is a mystery which it’s entirely understandable callow men might go half-mad trying to unravel.
A more cynical viewer than the one you are by this stage of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” could accuse Andrew of cozying up to the daughter only to get closer to her gorgeous, troubled mother. But one of the virtues of Raiff’s film is that it is as invested in Andrew’s other relationships as it is in this romance. The group-hug of its storytelling even expands to include Domino’s initially frosty fiancé Joseph (Raul Castillo), while minor characters such as David’s school friends and the gaggle of Jewish moms who press Andrew into party-starting service all get nice moments. An expertly observed sex scene between Andrew and his high school classmate-turned-occasional-hookup, Macy (Odeya Rush) is a case in point: their post-coital banter crackles with the very specific awkwardness of that situation, while also, incidentally, being very funny.
Occasionally the strain of having to manufacture dramatic conflict without ever assigning blame to anyone does start to tell on Raiff’s otherwise limber script. And if the movie does have a structural flaw, it’s that at 1 hour 47 minutes, it runs a little long. There may be one montage too many set to the strains of a mood-appropriate pop track. And it ends over and over again, a mark of the film’s eagerness to find ways to forgive all its characters for transgressions so minor we’ve already forgotten they made them. But the desire to do right by all its characters is an earnest one, and it doesn’t matter when we’re almost as fond of them all as Raiff is. Anyway, as the conclusion wisely, lightly, warmly affirms, at 22, no one should be hoping for a neat ending; that’s when adult life is only at its gloriously messy beginning.
So yes, this is a lovely film about lovely people being unfailingly lovely to one another, and given the current prevailing gloom in the world, you could easily accuse it of reading the room very wrong. But on the other hand, just like Andrew’s uncanny knack for igniting the grimmest gathering with little more than irrepressible cheeriness and a discreet swig or 10 of vodka, perhaps its unfashionable good humor is just what’s needed. Sometimes the only thing stopping us from taking to the dance floor to shake off the blues, is the lack of some guy willing to make a fool of himself up there first. And “Cha Cha Real Smooth” — with its heart on its sleeve, “Funky Town” on its playlist and a title you have to apologize for every time you say it — might just be that guy.
‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’
Rating: R, for language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In limited release and streaming June 17 on Apple TV+
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