‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Is Navel-Gazing Tedium With Flashes of Joy

Apple TV+

Sophomore features are famously tricky; the same can be said for endeavours where the writer, director, and/or lead actor wears several hats. Cha Cha Real Smooth sits at the intersection of both, with Cooper Raiff performing all three creative roles in his follow-up to his acclaimed debut Shithouse. Unfortunately, this equally ill-titled film is exhausting in its self-absorption, presenting irritatingly whimsical scenarios for a

Andrew (Cooper Raiff) is introduced as a child, confessing his crush on the grown woman leading a dance party to his mum and then to the object of his affections. The cringe of this sequence is played as if it’s adorable – the party leader tells the pre-teen she’s never been more flattered and his mother gives him a cuddle on the car ride home. However, when the film cuts to Raiff’s adult Andrew a decade later, the charm has worn thin – he is trying the same move again and again with improbable success among women (who continue to stroke his ego). Everyone loves Andrew, and Raiff makes no good case for why. His bubbly interactions exude a cocky self-confidence rather than intimacy and trust. Indeed his quips and pushy jokes grate after the first fifteen minutes, and the film plods on with no meaningful development in his interactions with the world for another hour and a half. 

Enter Domino (Dakota Johnson), three degrees removed from the textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, set apart by her age – old enough, albeit barely, to have a teenage daughter – and the fact that this trope feels painfully outdated 15 years after its heyday. With a possibly sordid past alienating her from her peers and an absent fiance, Andrew finds her an irresistible target on which to work his magic. The fact that their friendship remains just that (while Andrew sleeps with a younger woman and Domino continues her wedding planning) is a saving grace, lending some surprising turns and allowing a genuine rapport between the two. 

Apple TV+

Domino’s autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) feels like an afterthought and plot device, played for a series of quirks and to give Andrew a lost soul to reach out to rather than portrayed in her depth and humanity. Not every character in a rom-com and coming-of-age tale must be given Shakespearian depth. Still, deploying neurodivergence as an easy shorthand for difference feels incredibly cheap. This is not the only case in the film; Andrew’s mother, who remains nameless, wastes Leslie Mann’s talents behind a surface-level reading of bipolar disorder that is interested in its effects on Andrew’s childhood but not her artistry, motherhood, and broader life. 

While the supremacy of showing over telling is not always true, the solipsistic dialogue sharing self-revelations could easily have been slashed to demonstrate any changes of heart or attitude. Unfortunately, audiences are never shown the result of Andrew’s awakenings in his behaviour towards others, making each sincerely-delivered statement ring cynically hollow. When Domino tells Andrew that he looks like “the sweetest person ever”, the result is not heartwarming but laughable.  

Clearly a labour of love, Cha Cha Real Smooth is not without its good points. Johnson’s vibrant, unpretentious presence plays the weight of the unsaid, lending Domino more depth than is in the script. The child actors are universally charming, suiting the spirit of innocence and adventure the film reaches for but never correctly judges. There is something to be said about how the film addresses the dire prospects of young adults in an economy where not even a sparkling degree, passion, and demonstrable people skills can get you a job above mall fast food service. In a world devoid of meaningful progression, when stability and progress feel unreachable, finding joy and meaning in fleeting dance floor connections feels genuine and real.

Unfortunately, these small gems do not buoy the piece as a whole. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a misstep from a promising new voice in film that is cloying, irritating, and substituting faux-deep platitudes for meaningful character development.

Cha Cha Real Smooth begins streaming on Apple TV+ on June 17

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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