New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: TRIPLE-THREAT COOPER RAIFF’S “CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH” IS AN ODD CHARMER

The title CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH is an odd one, a riff on the 2000 dance track by DJ Casper, that equals the offbeat tone coursing thru filmmaker Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature. It’s a coming-of-age story with a man-child at its center, blended with rom-com inklings as heartfelt as they are weird. Raiff not only wrote and directed this eccentric mix of humor and pathos, but he’s also the lead. Move over, triple-threats Woody Allen and Tyler Perry.

Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad who’s not sure what he wants to do with his life. Endlessly positive, more boyish than mature, Andrew lives at home, much to the delight of his impressionable teen brother David (Evan Assante), and the unease of his mom (Leslie Mann) and prickly stepdad (Brad Garrett). Pressured by his mother to find purpose, Andrew ends up getting two very odd jobs. First, he works for minimum wage slinging hot dogs at a mall eatery outrageously named Meat Sticks. Then, more substantively, he scores a gig as a Mitzvah party host which showcases his brio, charm, and yes, lanky-doodle dance moves. Andrew becomes the life of the party, expertly cajoling nervous Jewish boys and girls to live a little.

One of the kids he connects with at the social gatherings is the autistic Lola. She’s played by newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, a young woman with autism, and his relationship with her impresses Lola’s guarded mom Domino. Dakota Johnson plays her and it’s one of the year’s better supporting performances – sexy, lived-in, sly as a fox. Soon, Andrew starts cultivating friendships with both women and becomes close buds with each. Andrew even starts babysitting Lola when Domino goes out with ramrod lawyer Joseph (Raul Castillo), and as he gets closer to the teen, he starts to have romantic feelings for Domino. That budding courtship is both exceptionally cute and more than a bit skeevy.

After all, shouldn’t Andrew be more considerate of Lola’s vulnerability in compromising his employment as her caretaker by canoodling with her mother? And should Andrew be blurring so many professional and personal lines? Heck, wouldn’t Domino have a regular babysitter for Lola already, one who understands her particular needs? Raiff manages to keep us rooting for Andrew despite some of his incredibly selfish and spontaneous choices. Perhaps that’s the truest part of his coming-of-age here; he’s learning, slowly but surely, to curb his creepiness. Andrew’s bad choices shouldn’t play as funny as they do, but that’s because Raiff is a very accomplished comedic actor.

CHA CHA’s plotting all has a loosy-goosy vignette style to it, with lots of funny bits for side characters as well as the supporting cast. The situations presented here all feel very specific and genuine, even though occasionally the humor veers into farce that feels more like movie tropes than something realistic. Raiff knows how to shoot and edit schtick too, as well as get sharp performances from everyone. Especially good is Burghardt who gives Lola a wonderfully droll style, and Johnson whose world-weariness as a put-upon mom is palpable. Domino has been through a lot in her 30-odd years and she needs the laughs that Andrew provides.

So do we, in a summer already fraught with too much gun violence and insurrection horror stories. Raiff delivers a quirky, funny, feel-good movie that elicits warm fuzzies, cackles, and the occasional cringe. And against this season, that’s a party.

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