The opening segment of Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth is an adorably heartsick number about a shy boy, Andrew (Javien Mercado), who works up the nerve to declare his love to Bella (Kelly O’Sullivan), the twentysomething party starter at a bar mitzvah. She lets him down easy, assuring Andrew that this is the sweetest thing ever to happen to her. Nevertheless, he is crushed, sulking in the back seat of his parent’s car as though he will never love again.
Unable to take his despondency, Andrew’s mother (Leslie Mann), climbs into the back seat to hug him, explaining to his irritated father, “my baby’s heartbroken.” Ending things there would have made for an excellent short.
However, the film goes on to answer the question of what Andrew would be like after another ten years of emotional coddling. His moony romanticism has remained. But his preadolescent awkwardness has been replaced by overconfidence, limited self-awareness, and refusal to believe in consequences. In practice, this would be a difficult trick to pull off and retain many long-term relationships. But Cha Cha Real Smooth presents Andrew not as a self-indulgent slacker but as a literal life of the party whose immaturity and screwups are just further evidence of his positive and affirming energy. That energy draws just about every character in the film towards him like a magnet, including Domino (Dakota Johnson), an older woman who should know better, and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, a standout).
Adult Andrew is played by writer/director Raiff (who made his name with the 2020 indie comedy Shithouse) with a wide-eyed bubbly earnestness and soft-edged snark. It makes sense for the character, introduced just after graduating from Tulane, where he seemed to be a well-liked carouser who never put much thought into his studies or career. Andrew has moved back in with his mother, her new husband Greg (Brad Garrett), and his little brother David (Evan Assante), and started working at a dispiriting fast-food place with the wonderfully grotesque name Meat Sticks.
At first, the film appears to be following the well-worn path of many failure-to-launch comedies about overeducated and undermotivated young people from comfortable backgrounds flailing around as adulthood looms. Andrew reconnects with some high school friends, including a woman who was far out of his league back then but now appears to be okay with settling, and pines after his college girlfriend while she gets on with her life in Barcelona. His sights are set so low that, after chaperoning David to a bar mitzvah where boredom leads him to maneuvering kids onto the dance floor, when some mothers suggest he go into business as a party starter (a real job), he sees no reason not to.
Andrew’s poorly thought-out new career stumbles ahead, his tendency to get drunk and start fights at the bar mitzvahs causes embarrassments but oddly no lack of new business. But he focuses primarily on repeating the behavior of his 12-year-old self by flinging himself at an unavailable woman. Domino has a fiancé—conveniently absent on business in Chicago for most of the film—but is entranced by Andrew’s pining and his rapport with Lola, leading to a quietly played romantic tension. For the most part, she keeps him at arms’ length and pretends that he is truly around all the time to look after Lola, but then she will lose herself and climb into his lap.
It’s an intriguing dynamic, largely due to Domino’s mystery. Just about the only reticent character in a film full of over-sharers, she ends up being the only one of interest. As the director, Raiff skillfully uses Johnson’s knack for bringing sensuality, remoteness, and a hint of danger to add some friction to an otherwise somewhat glassy and uneventful story, much like Maggie Gyllenhaal did with 2021’s The Lost Daughter. As the writer, however, Raiff critically shortchanges her character in favor of presenting the case for the awesomeness of Andrew.
As the film’s manic pixie dream boy, Andrew is meant to be all things. Sensitive and considerate without being a wallflower, he’s the guy who can sweep women off their feet, go clubbing until dawn, and then wake up to go work with disadvantaged kids. Just in case Andrew’s bona fides were not sufficiently established, Raiff includes a subplot where he also sticks up for bullied kids. Even though that leads to a fight in which Andrew’s mother ends up with a black eye, she forgives him instantly, the film’s prime directive being Andrew is a Good Guy.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is bullying in its insistence on Andrew’s likeability. Combined with underdeveloped secondary characters and many chronically underwritten scenes, it does not leave much else to hang onto as Andrew bumbles from one ostensibly charming misadventure to another.
Some things are just cuter when done by a 12-year-old than a Tulane graduate.