“Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Reviewed: It's Sentimental and Cynical and Has One Truly Great Performance


The twenty-five-year-old writer, actor, and director Cooper Raiff builds his precocity into his movies. In his first feature of him, “Shithouse,” from 2020, which he also edited and produced, he plays a lonely college freshman, still tethered to his mother and his sister of him back home, who made mistakes his crush on his resident adviser for to romance. His new film by him, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (which opens in theaters and drops on Apple TV + Friday), has a similar setup that builds a bigger dramatic bridge over a bigger gap in age and experience. Raiff plays Andrew, a twenty-two-year-old newly minted college graduate who returns to his home town of Livingston, New Jersey. There, he promptly meets and falls in love with a thirtysomething woman named Domino (Dakota Johnson), the mother of one of his thirteen-year-old brother’s classmates.

The most striking thing about “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is the variety and density of dramatic detail that Raiff, as screenwriter, elaborates within the stark lines of his premise. Yet his virtuosity comes with a strangely sentimental, self-regarding air; the entire film is tinged with a cloying glaze that seeps into the interstices of the drama and limits his characters’ range of motion. Its sticky-sweetness becomes part of its very substance. Around his central duo, he sets up an array of characters as swiftly and sharply defined as they are shallowly imagined; with few exceptions, he gives his actors poignant moments of precise emotion, but that have a single, unambiguous tone (women and youths, perky; men, gruff) and an unvarying manner. (There is one notable exception; we’ll get there.) The movie is an odd case of ends circling around to meet: its extremes of earnestness are inseparable from its extremes of cynicism. With a disarming candor, the film is the true expression of false emotion.

Andrew’s romantic preference is set up as destiny in a brief prelude when, as a twelve-year-old bar-mitzvah guest, he falls in love with a young woman about ten years his senior—the party-starter. Then the action leaps ten years ahead, to something like the present day (minus covid). When Andrew finishes college, his plan is a sentimental one: he moves back home and gets a job at a fast-food joint in order to make money and follow his college girlfriend to Barcelona, ​​where she’s studying. His life changes when he accompanies his thirteen-year-old brother, David (Evan Assante), to a bat mitzvah, where Andrew spies Domino from across the room with her teen-age daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Seeing the dance floor empty, the energetic and enthusiastic Andrew takes control of the music, livens up the party, and finds an excuse to talk with Domino, who is socially isolated from other parents because she has what used to be called a reputation, and is sitting apart from them because she’s taking care of Lola, who’s autistic. Andrew quickly makes Lola the object of his concern for her, seeing her enjoyment of the party and thereby forging an instant bond with Domino, both emotional and practical.

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Andrew becomes a babysitter for Lola, whose confidence he has won, and he gets hired by parents as the party-starter for their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. As her relationship with Domino deepens, and he makes her all-too-obvious feelings of her known to her, their lives grow increasingly complicated. Fiercely protective of his mother (Leslie Mann), who is bipolar, Andrew is openly contemptuous of his stern stepfather, Greg (Brad Garrett), a pharmaceuticals executive. The adoring David tightens their relationship by depending on Andrew for romantic advice; Andrew reconnects with a high-school friend (Odeya Rush); his long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Maya (Amara Pedroso), is fraying; and he’s frustrated in his efforts to find a job at a nonprofit. He sparks conflict on the bar-mitzvah circuit when he encourages David’s circle of friends to stand up for Lola and confront bullies who torment her. As for Domino, she’s engaged to a frequent-flying lawyer named Joseph (Raúl Castillo), whose many and long trips to Chicago leave her on her own. Andrew senses an opening to supplant Joseph as her emotional support from her, and a pretext to wheel her into breaking up with her fiancé from her.

There’s a lot going on in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” and Raiff makes it happen in an earnest whirl of sugar-spangled dialogue and kicky offshoots of incidents within incidents—ricochets and sidebars reminiscent of screwball comedy. The movie’s sharply etched (if thinly imagined) characterizations keep the story moving, precisely and mechanically, like the gears and wheels of a luxury watch. Raiff lavishes attention on supporting characters; the movie is an outpouring of affection for performers and characters alike. As it happens, it’s also an outpouring of affection for Raiff’s own character, his own performance of him, and his own particular sensibility of him.

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The spirit that haunts “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is that of Jerry Lewis. In his conception and embodiment of Andrew, Raiff borrows the mother-hen persona that Lewis adopts in his masterwork, “The Ladies Man,” from 1961, and sentimentalizes it even more by rationalizing it, normalizing it, intellectualizing it, and toning down its outrageous excesses. Yes, Lewis was already the schmaltziest sentimentalist in Hollywood, but he put his heart into playing protagonists who were frantic, naïve, unsocialized, overgrown children; in their begging for love, they are virtually begging to be hated. Raiff takes no such chance. Andrew is a puppy dog ​​whom a viewer would feel guilty about hating. Yet, under it all, his craving for a relationship derives foremost from raging lust, and, second, from an utter obliviousness about the emotional lives of the people around him, and his own.

Like Lewis’s overbearing nebbishes, Raiff’s Andrew tries too hard. The difference is that Andrew gets rewarded for it from the start. He is endearingly dorky, with his prow of perfectly coiffed hair-tussle, his short-sleeved dress shirts buttoned to the neck, his self-aware efforts at slick gestures and self-aware failures to pull them off, his Munchausen-like inclination to blurt out wildly inappropriate and false connections to the afflictions of others, his relentlessly perky and energetic exertions to see to the happiness of others. Andrew’s flaws are faux flaws that boast of virtues; he is too caring, too devoted, too honest, too full of love. It’s as if the entire movie is Andrew’s job interview. Raiff similarly spotlights the goodness of the supporting characters (except, of course, for the movie’s few but blatant villains). Andrew’s goofiness is too virtuous, too useful, to be annoying; his cantankerousness of him is too transparently toothless to be offensive. He’s no angel, but he does no harm—he drinks when he shouldn’t, he makes fun of the rabbi, he even nearly vents his rage, as in the best moment that the movie gives him, when, walking in the neighborhood, he receives an upsetting word on his cell phone, kicks a neighbor’s lawn and, raising a divot, tamps it back down.

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Raiff hardly has a discernible directorial style, but its prime mark is in its closeups, especially extended ones of palpable longing, in which the camera gaze is submerged in Andrew’s admiration for the wonder and the beauty that he sees in Domino—and then is submerged. in admiring Andrew himself for his rapt admiration of her. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is ultimately coy and moralistic about sex (avoiding spoilers, who has it with whom speaks volumes on Raiff’s empathetic hierarchy), complete with a cheap and easy irony sparked by one casual encounter. Raiff builds elements of complexity into his characters from him, dropping details of lives in tossed-off lines of dialogue that never synthesize into action, let alone discussion; he suggests difficulties and conflicts that play like comedic exaggerations and leave out the sense of experience and reflection on it; he plays the closest thing to a whirlwind of trouble as a set of facetious clichés—not least, in its main dramatic buildup to the lessons learned by a callow young man as he takes his first steps into adulthood. What’s more, the action takes place in a hermetic bubble, floating somewhere above New Jersey and the world, with no connection to anything more tangible than a screenwriter’s keyboard.

Nonetheless, the film’s rigid plot, easy characterization, and lack of directorial creativity are balanced by Burghardt’s performance. She’s a poised and distinctive actor, neurodivergent in real life, and Raiff’s work with her to develop Lola’s personality and characteristics with her is her main achievement. Lola has trouble connecting with people, but she’s intellectually gifted, a whiz at the advanced varieties of Rubik’s Cube, a skillful card player, and a vocabulary champion who dazzles and defeats Andrew at a Scrabble-like game. Lola has a distinctive diction and syntax, a poignant and candid self-awareness, a natural expressiveness, and that singular actorly gift of presence. Although the character is constructed more through mannerisms than through substance, more from telling details than from avowed experience, Burghardt’s performance outshines and outweighs the movie’s hollow artifice. ♦


Reference-www.newyorker.com

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