Across eras, from medieval to modern, the dancefloor was built in the house of liquid courage. In levels of required presence at a wedding, a bar is almost equated to nuptial vows. Can you soberly look at someone in the eye when you give in to “The Wobble” — should you? Alcohol doesn’t make everyone or everything fun, but there is the titillating possibility that you can have so much fun. This introduction may work for Another Round, but there is a specific source of swagger that might level with alcohol: the homecoming return of a dewy-eyed college graduate bursting at the seams with promise. Watch out, coming-of-age high schoolers who’ve had a couple of Bud Lights; here’s the coming-of-age college kid who also lacks nuanced experiences but knows a cool party trick.
At the moment, director/writer/actor Cooper Raiff’s brand is “young man with promise.” Andrew, his character in his second directorial film, Cha Cha Real Smooth, is perhaps an iteration of Raiff’s emotional id. But instead of coming right off the press from a well-liked film debut, Andrew moves back home with his mother (who I guess is nameless, but is played by Leslie Mann, a woman with such huge screen persona as Leslie Mann the Mom that it must surely give her the unspoken power to name the character Leslie), stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), and younger brother David (Evan Assante). While he tells his girlfriend that he’ll save enough money working at a non-profit to follow her to Barcelona, Andrew’s reality is Meat Sticks, a hot dog/corn dog situation stand at a food court.
He accompanies David to a bat mitzvah where he brings white-hot
moves enthusiasm to the dancefloor with enough charm that kids may permit bopping their heads to “Funktyown.” Andrew also meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her teenage daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Gathered from the other parents’ salacious whispers and her physical isolation at the party, the audience can ping Domino’s aloofness and seeming despondence. After Andrew successfully engages with Lola, who is autistic, at the dancefloor, two plot-relevant things happen: 1) he’s recruited by the moms to be the “party starter” at the other b’nei mitzvahs and 2) Domino takes notice in Andrew’s keenness for kindness. With the continuation of b’nei mitzvahs — which is hilarious because we can watch Party-City shades of the same partygoers but have character development — Andrew gets closer to Domino and Lola.
Though it may not appear artistically sound, the execution of Andrew’s character has to be as precise as a political candidate’s campaign. If he’s too eager, or too persistent, or too sullen, the balance of likability can be easily be tipped over. Raiff plays him to an exact tolerance that lets me exhale (for the most part), but shares essences of naivete and thoughtfulness that I feel that the demographic of mothers and dorky young men would especially like. In fact, Andrew barely falters from discouragement and shines a good-person believability through this otherwise conventional dramedy. All of this is to say that Andrew works best as providing the dancefloor for others’ performances.
It’s funny to think that Johnson’s career kicked off in Fifty Shades of Grey (it’s like if Zoë Kravitz was supposed to be the accident-prone, shivering Bella in Twilight). Since then, she has curated an aura of self-assuredness that for Domino’s character, Dakota Johnson just has to care deeply about fulfillment and be aware of what her decisions entail. For that, Domino is enigmatic while avoiding the MILF edition of MPDG, which is why the “will-they-won’t-they” dynamic between her and Andrew is respectable and somewhat enrapturing. Truly, the cast brings it: Burghardt’s debut performance, Leslie Mann’s black eye, Raúl Castillo who plays Domino’s fiancé (“I was telling Domino that you remind me a lot of myself,” Castillo’s muscular lawyer character says to Andrew’s slouched shoulders).
Cha Cha Real Smooth relents to the expectant beats of a young man in love with an older woman, almost veering into suburban savior territory that would have soured their characters. From the fact that living life, not age, makes all the difference, we watch Andrew and Domino push and pull each other to the finish line knowing how it’ll end. Their prize, as should the rest of life be, is a participation trophy for trying.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
dir. Cooper Raiff
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre and streaming on AppleTV+.