The sixth and final film in our accidental series of passion projects, this one written and directed by Cooper Raiff, Cha Cha Real Smooth is the story of a recent college graduate, Andrew, who is kind of aimless and living at home with his much younger brother (Evan Assante), his mom (Leslie Mann), and his stepfather (Brad Garrett) that he doesn’t much care for. His plans are so inchoate that they basically involve working at the Meat Sticks in the mall until he can get enough money to join his college girlfriend who is spending a year in Spain and pretty much has told him their whole college deal is over.
The first thing that stands out about the movie is the character of Andrew (played by Raiff). Andrew is a really nice guy. Genuinely nice. Not perfect by a long shot. But a big part of his aimlessness comes from knowing that he wants to do something good and not being able to figure out what that would be.
Attending a flailing bar mitzvah with his family, out of a sincere desire to make things better, he…makes things better. He gets the party started. He gets people dancing. He does such a good job, people hire him as a professional party mover. This path leads him to Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
The attraction between the decade-older Domino and Andrew creates immediate tension because Andrew is really cool and gentle and excellent with Lola but Domino has a fianceé she is conflicted about on the one hand, but not in the movie-logic “Well, the young man who hasn’t even started his life should totally hook up with the mother with the teen daughter” way. The tension weighs on Andrew and he begins to lose his general coolness.
He acts like a dick, in short. And we see that, to some degree, his intense romantic feelings are a way of diverting from his aimlessness.
This all works remarkably well. Minefields abound (from the standpoint of building a narrative). Andrew could be smug and unlikable (as is the way of the youth) but he’s not. Even his aimlessness is less a The Graduate-style inchoate loathing for The System, Man and just a “I want to make the world a better place, I just haven’t figure out how yet.” He could also be movie-perfect and he is not.
Here’s another refreshing aspect of the film: The characters in the movie that are positioned as his antagonists (his stepfather and his would-be girlfriend’s boyfriend), far from irremedial villains, are actually real live people with their own goals and feelings. In fact, wherever one might be tempted to reduce a character to a particular type, some atypical (for a movie) depth of character turns up.
Well, okay, there is the Prick family. Literally listed in the credits as Little Prick and Mr. and Mrs. Prick. Little likes tormenting Lola and as awful and cartoonish as it sounds, yeah, that’s well within the realm of reality, as well as the parents who indulge their children’s cruelty.
The acting in this is award worthy. I have never seen a better performance from Mann. I’ve never noticed Johnson that much (though she was good in Black Mass), but here she is supremely effective: maternal, sexy, vulnerable but not stupid, you can understand both Andrew’s attraction to her and her conflict. Brad Garrett could be the butt of all the antics, but with very little time, he is a big part of young-Andrew-not-quite-getting-things. So, too, with Raul Castillo, who you could easily believe is abusive—he’s cut, he’s angry, he’s a lawyer—but ultimately is more mature and sensitive than Andrew.
Vanessa Burghardt. I was just commenting to The Boy that Tropic Thunder had really put a stop to the I’m-Mentally-Handicapped-Give-Me-An-Award genre. This, thankfully, is not that. Burghardt does good here. The movie does a good job of portraying the essential weirdness of certain types of brain injuries without glamorizing it, and Burghardt’s performance is more true-to-life than awards-bait.
Raiff himself does an excellent job in the lead. As I said, the minefield is not small. Pulling off writer, director, producer and lead is done more frequently than it’s done well, and it’s done well here.
It made a nice close to the six flicks.