Cooper Raiff has a serious problem with titles. [object Window] 22, [object Window], a title so head-scratchingly awful that it was renamed Freshman Year for its UK release. But as bad as that might have been, and it didn’t stop the film from winning a major award at SXSW and garnering a string of deservedly enthused reviews, he’s somehow managed to outdo himself with his follow-up, the excruciatingly named Cha Cha Real Smooth, a title so skin-crawlingly heinous, it appears that perhaps he’s simply trolling us. Dit is ook, hartseer, a much weaker film, a sickly-sweet disappointment from someone whose first feature suggested that he might be the new Richard Linklater but it turns out that instead, he might just be the new Zach Braff …
What’s most frustrating about the slide from Shithouse to here is that what had previously felt genuine and raw now feels rather false and self-conscious. With a bigger budget and bigger names, Raiff has created something that feels too primed to please and too eager to be loved, a calculated Sundance movie made for a Sundance crowd, far from a disaster but even farther from the highs of his debut.
Raiff, acting as writer, director and star yet again, plays Andrew, a 22-year-old moving back home after college, trying to find his place in the adult world. His job at Meat Sticks is as unfulfilling as it sounds and after taking his younger brother to a bat mitzvah, he quickly discovers a skill he wasn’t aware he had and a profession he hadn’t thought of. His new job as bar and bat hype man brings him closer to a local mother (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter who he starts babysitting for.
Cha Cha Real Smooth could almost be a straight sequel to Shithouse, a film that saw a socially awkward student find his tribe and his voice. Now it’s a recent graduate figuring out what to do next and it’s clear that Raiff is a writer most comfortable drawing, albeit loosely, on his own experiences. There’s definite detail in his writing that’s often missing from similar what-am-I-gonna-do-with-my-life indies but not enough to truly distinguish it, vital in such an overstuffed sub-genre. There’s not a beat or a character here who will surprise you, sadly least of all Andrew, an edgeless, puppyish saint we’re expected to fall for from the outset without Raiff’s writing or performance really earning such unwavering adulation. Raiff has written himself as a nice guy who does nice things and everyone says nice things about (in one scene, Johnson laughably tells him: “You know what you look like right now? You look like the sweetest person ever”) which is extremely limiting both for Andrew and the film. Bar a handful of forgivably impetuous reactions, he’s essentially blemish-free, charming virtually everyone around him. It makes for a protagonist who has nowhere of interest to really go and so the film is stuck in its tracks along with him.
Raiff’s gangly, floppy-haired charm, which held almost every frame of Shithouse, is far less effective here, a little too self-assured perhaps, but there’s another great turn from Johnson, who responds to his dialed up life-of-the-party shtick with a more subdued and thoughtful performance, giving the film its heart, beating quietly in the background (there’s barely any time for her How to be Single sister Leslie Mann, playing Raiff’s mother, with a dead-ended story about mental health). An all-too-brief one-scene turn from Saint Frances’ Kelly O’Sullivan only serves to remind us how she ook wrote and starred in a what-am-I-gonna-do-with-my-life indie that ook involved a confused slacker caring for kids but achieved all of the genuine emotional highs that this one can’t touch.
At a young age, Raiff still remains an exciting up-and-coming film-maker of note and even in his sophomoric slump, there’s enough, coupled with his standout debut, to suggest that better things will come. Hopefully better titles too.