You know how there was a time in Hollywood when studios and agents told actors to change their names? Sometimes we hear those stories and think how horrible it was that the talent was forced to do that. Other times, we find out Kirk Douglas’ real name was Issur Danielovitch, and we think maybe something different on the marque might work better. If I were the studio or agent for Cooper Raiff, I’d have him change something. No, not his last name, but his movie titles. His first film was the wonderful Sh**house. The title of his second, and better movie, is Cha Cha Real Smooth, which isn’t the smoothest title around. Imagine people trying to decide what movie to see, spotting this title in the newspaper, and wondering what it is. They’ll just assume it’s a dance movie and move on. And that’s a shame because it’s one of the best films of the year. It’s amazing to think that Raiff is in his early 20s and giving us movies like this. He produced, directed, wrote, and starred in it.
Raiff plays Andrew, who is just out of college and not sure what to do with his life. He seems to lack ambition, and this bothers his girlfriend (Maya Pedroso Saquel), who is off to Barcelona for school. The movie is kind of like The Graduate for millennials. Yet while Andrew is certainly naive in a lot of ways, he’s also rather charming, and doesn’t have a problem with the ladies. His dad doesn’t lean in and tell him the future is “plastics.” Instead, Andrew berates his stepdad Greg (played with wonderful restraint by Brad Garrett).
Andrew shares a bedroom with his nerdy young brother David (Evan Assante), and they have great chemistry together. You adore the relationship. He’s got a mom (Leslie Mann) that he sometimes bickers with, and we slowly learn she has a few issues. He’s got a cute friend (Odeya Rush), who after seeing how funny and charming he is at bar mitzvahs, decides to sleep with him. The other women at the bar mitzvahs decide he’s the perfect guy to…host their bar mitzvahs and get the party started. This leads to a job he likes slightly better than the one he works at the food court in a mall. That place looks like a Hot Dog on a Stick, and it’s humorously called Meat Sticks (which would totally be the name of my punk band, if I had one).
A lot of praise for this movie is going to Dakota Johnson, who plays Domino. She’s one of the mothers at a bar mitzvah that is charmed by Andrew, especially after he gets her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) onto the dance floor. Johnson is great in the role, but the problem I had was with how the character was written. Just like how I hated how the older man manipulated her in those crappy Fifty Shades of Grey…in this movie, a lot of what she does doesn’t make sense. She’s engaged, and seemingly happy in her relationship. She knows that this guy is young and falls in love easily, yet she leads him on. The first time she kisses him also makes little sense, because of the incident that happened right before the kiss. I won’t ruin what it is, but no woman would be in the mood to kiss or make love after it, yet she jumps right onto his lap. And I think this movie could have been just as powerful had Domino never shown any sexual attraction to Andrew, but he still misconstrues her being nice and appreciating all he does for her daughter and mistakes her affections. Instead, I can’t truly like her character. I do like Andrew’s character, but I also wonder if audiences will realize how flawed he is (for many reasons I won’t delve into, as they’d be spoilers). He is a bit selfish and a lot to take, but this is all so funny and enjoyable to watch, I really didn’t care. Even the few cliches are done in a way that’s rather enjoyable.
When we meet Domino’s fiance Joseph (Raul Castillo), you think you know where this is going. Instead, when the confrontation finally happens, it’s one of the most smartly written scenes of this kind I’ve ever seen on screen.
I never loved my wife more than when in the middle of this she said, “This filmmaker reminds me of those brothers that you like, that make indie movies.”
Yes, the Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark). Yet I think Raiff moves have more broad appeal. I can’t imagine anyone watching this and not enjoying the fact that they can spend time with these people on screen.
Vanessa Burghardt steals every scene she’s in, and she’s an actress who really has autism.
You can catch it at a handful of theaters around town (I saw it at the Angelika Film Center), and it’s also on Apple TV+. They released the movie that won Oscars for deaf actors (CODA). I’m hoping this film makes some noise around awards season and gets one for an autistic actress.
4 stars out of 5.