‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ has some rough spots, but Raiff and Johnson enjoy lovely, effortless chemistry

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” (2022) – Andrew is lost.

He’s lost in New Jersey, and specifically, Livingston. 

Not literally, because Andrew (Cooper Raiff) leans on his smartphone as a baby kitten relies on its mother, so he’s familiar with Google Maps.

No, this 22-year-old Donnie Osmond lookalike is more than a smidge stumped about his life’s next steps.  Having just graduated with a marketing degree from Tulane University, Andrew didn’t ride the Green Wave towards an impressive corporate profession. 

His soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Maya (Amara Pedroso) asks the principal question:  “What are you gonna do after college?”

Raiff – who also wrote and directed “Cha Cha Real Smooth” – answers for Andrew in his boy-loses-girl, boy-meets-new-girl romantic drama with a spotlight on the blurry phase between freewheeling extended adolescence and adulthood. 

Andrew connects with an attractive 30-something mom named Domino (Dakota Johnson) at a bat mitzvah, and they are off to the maybe-romance-will-happen races, even though she’s already engaged.  

There is genuine, magical stuff between Raiff and Johnson here.  Ultimately, this movie successfully resonates and tugs on our emotions based on the strengths of Raiff’s thoughtful written exchanges between the leads and Johnson’s soulful performance.

Newcomer Vanessa Burghardt is awfully good too as Domino’s daughter Lola and so is Raiff in key spots. 

Andrew (Cooper Raiff), David (Evan Assante), Domino (Dakota Johnson), and Lola (Vanessa Burghardt)

He purposely writes Andrew as clumsy and inexperienced, but one problem arises: this character’s (sometimes) caustic behavior makes it a chore to always root for him.  For instance, he is frequently callous to his stepdad (Brad Garrett) without giving legit reasons for his putdowns.  Greg (Garrett) is supposed to be a jerk, but he never gives off those vibes.  Instead, he’s Andrew’s punching bag.  Also, on occasion, Andrew will threaten 13-year-olds and drink on the job, which aren’t accomplishments to place at the top of a resume.  Then again, Andrew never claims to be John Q. Model Citizen, either.  (He and several others also engage in an uncomfortable, gratuitous melee in the third act that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor.)

To buy into Andrew, you need to accept his flaws, which isn’t always a simple task.   

Another issue is the forced, central plot device that allows Andrew to pursue Domino throughout the film’s 104-minute runtime.  The night they meet, he lands a part-time job as a bar/bat mitzvah party starter.  (This is a real job???)  Since Domino and Lola regularly and conveniently attend every celebration Andrew works, he has recurrent and convenient opportunities to continue his crush and hopes that she’ll reciprocate.

Geez, how many Livingston kids are turning 12 or 13 anyway?  Domino and Andrew lead very separate lives, so the script needs logistical connective tissue.  It becomes a practical matter.  The suspension of disbelief takes a blow, but not a fatal one.

Conversely, what is alive here?  The frank, insightful tete-a-tetes between the two leads and their awkward and stirring chemistry are. 

Andrew might be 12, 13, or 14 years younger than Domino, but their lifestyles are decades apart. 

Lola (Burghardt) and Domino (Johnson)

Front and center, Raiff pours a clear-cut disparity between Gen Z and Millennials onto the screen.  Any generational differences throughout the ages could place hurdles in a relationship, but this particular one involves the Gig Economy. 

Our protagonist can’t find footing with love, labor, and logic.  He lives at home with his mom (Leslie Mann), Greg, and shares a room with his 13-year-old brother (Evan Assante). 

This recent college graduate has the stability of the San Andreas Fault and expresses the common sense of ground beef every so often. 

His drinking at work and conflicts with kids are prime examples, and during a job interview, he states that his dad has Lou Gehrig’s disease when his father (or stepfather) doesn’t.  It’s fair to say that Andrew might not be ready for cubicle life, a mortgage, and 2.3 kids.  Meanwhile, Domino is a responsible, caring mom to Lola, lives in the suburbs, and is engaged to Joseph (Raul Castillo).  He’s an attorney and toils over a case in Chicago, so he’s usually working in The Windy City while she and Lola are on their own.  Why is she interested in Andrew?

Domino’s life is mostly settled, while Andrew deals with personal earthquakes.  Their attraction cuts across their experiences. 

Although the film devotes generous minutes to Domino’s hope for happiness, “Cha Cha” primarily is Andrew’s journey. 

Andrew’s Mom (Leslie Mann), Andrew (Raiff), and Greg (Brad Garrett)

The pacing and editing mirror Andrew’s frantic, cluttered headspace.  The narrative hops quickly between his mom and stepdad’s place, a bar/bat mitzvah, his fast-food day job, and Domino’s house.  However, Raiff usually slows down the intimate one-on-one conversations between Andrew and the individual players.  Time stops during the measured discourse between Andrew and his mom, little brother, Lola, or Domino.  Raiff carves out meaningful moments for each player.  Everyone gets a spot to shine, but Domino is always on Andrew’s mind, including when she’s off-screen.     

Their connection is earnest and respectful, as the two blend flirtations and sincerity into their intimate discourse.  The script dives into some remarkable depth about commitment, fear, and wants as the 20-something and 30-something let down their guards.  Raiff makes effective subtle choices with his camera by capturing soft touches, one particular chivalrous gesture with Andrew holding Domino’s elbows, and a lovely callback to “The Graduate” (1967) in her living room.

This wide-eyed, idealist man believes that “all you need is love,” but Domino’s relationship scars prove that love isn’t all you need.  Dakota’s Domino seems to eternally contemplate between the immediate joys of the here-and-now versus the long-term security of a hopeful future through warm smiles and occasional tears.  She grapples with tradeoffs and exposes her vulnerabilities. 

No doubt, she wields power between the two, as Andrew occasionally fumbles and crafts proposals for staying within her eyeshot.  He becomes Lola’s babysitter, and Burghardt – autistic in real-life – plays her character as autistic.  Andrew and Lola have this sweet older brother/younger sister vibe.  He’s babysitting Lola to gain favor with her mom, which initially seems like a bridge too far, but when you’re 22 and infatuated, you’ll make grocery store runs to Delaware without much of a second thought.

Domino (Johnson)

Let’s note that Andrew also genuinely cares for Lola’s welfare.

Speaking of notes, inspiring alternative music choices are featured all over this film, as recent hits from Jean Dawson, Rostam, Big Red Machine, Samia, and Hovvdy guide Andrew through his passionate and baffling sways.  

For Gen Z and Millennials, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” could be a 2022 cinematic anthem.  For Gen X and older crowds, maybe or maybe not, but we remember those lost days too, and this movie might spark memories for 104 minutes and beyond.

⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Written and directed by:  Cooper Raiff

Starring:  Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Evan Assante, Vanessa Burghardt, and Raul Castillo

Runtime:  104 minutes

Image credits: Apple TV+

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