Apparently Apple TV+ loves to pay a lot of money for indie dramedies that are all in their feelings — and will get viewers all in their feelings as well.
A year-and-a-half ago, the streaming service went to the Sundance Film Festival and ponied up a whopping $25 million — a Sundance record — for future Best Picture Oscar winner CODA. Apple went back to Sundance this year and snatched up Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award, for $15 million.
Raiff has become something of a film-festival darling. His 2020 debut Shithouse won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at that year’s SXSW Film Festival. That movie featured writer-director Raiff in the lead role as a lonely college student who wishes he was home with his family. In Smooth he stars as Andrew, who moves back in with his bipolar mother (Leslie Mann) and stuffy stepdad (Brad Garrett) after graduation. After getting kids to party up at a bat mitzvah he attends, he gets a side gig as a “jig conductor” for bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs and other soirees parents throw for their kids. He’s basically following in the footsteps of his first crush, an older party starter he had a brief, heartbreaking crush on, as explained in the prologue.
Dude apparently has a thing for older women. At one of these parties he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), the engaged 30-something mom of autistic teen Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, precocious and poker-faced). Both mother and daughter take a liking to our boy, who starts babysitting Lola and once again becomes smitten with an unattainable mature lady, this time Domino.
With Smooth, Raiff presents a star-crossed May-December love story. Despite having off-the-charts chemistry that even Domino’s lawyer fiancé (Raúl Castillo) plainly, bitterly recognizes, Raiff and Johnson’s characters know they can’t — to quote Billy Paul in “Me and Mrs. Jones” — have a thing going on. He’s a guy who needs to find some purpose in life, and she’s a girl who needs some stability in hers. So it’s kinda like The Graduate, except the Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson of this film are generally decent people.
Raiff — looking like a younger Adam Scott sporting Kenny Loggins’ beard — is all easygoing, extroverted charm as Andrew. Although he’s living the post-collegiate life, working a dead-end job at a corn dog joint and bunking with his little brother (Evan Assante), he’s not letting it get him down. Gen-Z denial has never been personified more adorably.
As a filmmaker, Raiff teeters between moving the story along swiftly (he often cuts to the next scene the second a character stops talking) and having it play out in a calm, relaxed manner. While the movie is about a man who’s at his most ecstatic when he’s on a crowded dance floor (it’s like he’s forever chasing the high he experienced when he fell in love with that party starter years ago), Raiff seems to enjoy staging quaint, intimate moments in which two characters are alone in a room, just talking.
His rapport with Johnson, who also serves as a producer, is a joy to watch. Their characters may be stuck in a complicated romance, but they spend most of it enjoying one another’s company. (It’s been so long since I’ve seen a love story where the central couple acts like they actually like each other.) Between this and her recent role in The Lost Daughter, Johnson appears to be doing her best work playing complicated objects of obsession. Sure, she’s the hot mom whom other moms talk shit about — but she’s also a depressed, wounded soul who finds a kind, kindred spirit in Raiff’s aimless underachiever.
Despite being named after a line from a party song — and people on Twitter have complained about the lack of Black faces in a movie whose title references an essential cookout anthem, which does make a slapsticky appearance in this — Cha Cha Real Smooth is about people trying to find the right groove in their lives when they know the party is long over.