Director: Cooper Raiff
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Vanessa Burghardt
I wasn’t going to review this one. Watching it, I made the decision; no. There’s enough hate and snark and negativity on the internet, and when people get impassioned about how much they dislike something, how unnecessarily angry it made them, they lose all sense of perspective. I didn’t want to be one of those people. This site is overwhelmingly supposed to be about celebrating film. Even the movies that don’t quite meet their potential have some worth inside them. Rare are the reviews on here that outright slam their subject, and of that I’m kinda proud. Everything is someone‘s passion project.
But fuck Cooper Raiff and Cha Cha Real Smooth. I need to get this out.
Appearing excitedly and glibly in pretty much every scene of this indulgent, cloying and above all tacky greetings card of a picture, Raiff comes off creepy and desperate in his attempts to get us to like him. Like a discount store Adam Scott, goofing for camera, swaying this way and that in an effort to ensure that we understand that his character Andrew is cute and affable and above all a Nice Guy.
Following a cringeworthy opening in which his 12-year-old self (Javien Mercado) asks out an amused adult at a bar mitzvah (seemingly intended to instil a sense of precedent or pathology), we snap forward 10 years to discover Andrew hasn’t made it very far. He’s living at home with mom and dad, and working a ‘temporary’ job at a fast food hut until he can get his life back on track, whatever that means. In the process of doing so he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) at another local social function where he’s incessantly corralling people onto the dancefloor because he just put on “Funky Town”.
Raiff is aiming for a sensibility somewhere in the region of Bo Burnham but hits target a lot closer to James Corden. His Andrew – and almost every aspect of the surrounding movie – is immensely smug and overconfident, while his script is a conveyer belt of hot garbage that’s been left out in the sun too long, waiting to spill over into the Cute Indie Dramedy landfill that is Cha Cha Real Smooth.
This is a passion project of naked narcissism. A #NotAllMen routine that evidences a genuine sense of shock and pseudo-heartbreak when Andrew’s repeated intrusions into Domino’s life don’t yield a romcom finale. Raiff can’t allow anyone in the film to be truly mad at him. The most saccharine one-two punch is when Domino’s fiancé goes out of his way to reassure Andrew what a Nice Guy he is (when this happens will kill ya), before Andrew goes home to monologue his mother (Leslie Mann) to tears about how much he loves her. It’s beyond self-parody.
Charles Bramesco recently wrote a piece about the rise of ‘nice-core’ in movies (CODA, Everything Everywhere All At Once) and television, with an undertone of concern about what this revolution in feel-good entertainment might represent, where its well-intended limitations lie, and how difficult it is to criticise. Cha Cha Real Smooth is the sickening waste product of this trend; a movie that feels deeply cynical in it’s construction. A blatant and timely grab for the limelight. The entire project feels conspicuous and disingenuous. A concerted effort to ride the coattails of similarly mawkish hits like Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine and Captain Fantastic – all of which deploy this same sense of focus-grouped whimsy. Cha Cha will have what it believes to be a serious conversation about depression, but will have it over raspberry icicles so things don’t get too heavy.
The handling of autism balances on a knife-edge, but ultimately collapses because it feels as shrewdly implemented for the sake of ‘quirk’ as everything else here. As empty a gesture as the disabled kid who needs saving in one of Barton Fink‘s imaginary wrestling pictures. Lola has no real function beyond her autism, making her a trophy for Raiff to pick-up further points for how compassionate and heartwarming he and his project are. See also Domino’s mid-film miscarriage and the handling of her aforementioned depression (“Woah! Downer alert” – a genuine line from Andrew). Raiff may genuinely feel he is getting to the heart of such issues. Instead it reads as self-congratulatory for merely recognising they exist.
I thought that the Disney/Marvel machine was the worst incarnation of the present movie business. It’s soullessness (both in design and execution). But Cha Cha Real Smooth might just represent something even more insidious. People like Raiff need to sit down and be quiet. He can make a film. That’s just about evidenced here. What he needs, badly, is to stop trying to make himself the point of his films, reign it in and instead focus on other people’s stories with some semblance of actual empathy. Until that maturity arrives, you couldn’t get me far enough away.
I honestly didn’t think I’d see a worse film in 2022 than Judd Apatow’s The Bubble, but Raiff’s smiling, goofy, trip-over-yourself ambition has really paid off.