Only moments ago Cooper Raiff was a niche figure, someone you could avoid with a little effort. But now, he is the filmgoing public’s problem, thanks to Cha Cha Real Smooth, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.
Writer/director/actor Raiff’s excruciating 2020 feature debut, Shithouse, captured enough viewers and earned enough praise to garner him a second chance to waste our time with the equally galling and charmless Cha Cha Real Smooth.
Apple TV+ paid an absurd amount of money for this garbage film. Unfortunately, the big gamble on this “Sundance hit” landed the streaming service an indifferently directed trifle starring a weaselly narcissist.
Cha Cha Real Smooth review
The story, such as it is, goes like this. When Andrew (played by Raiff himself, because nobody else could handle such a demanding role) was young, he had his heart broken because he told a birthday party karaoke emcee (Kelly O’Sullivan) that he was in love with her. She very politely told him that wasn’t going to work out.
Flash forward 15 years later, and Andrew lives with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett) and little brother David (Evan Assante). Andrew works a terrible job, and his girlfriend (Amara Pedroso) left for Barcelona. So he’s got nothing going for him, basically. Even his tweenage brother has a more stable relationship. And speaking of that, the kid needs a ride to a bat mitzvah, where his girlfriend will be partying.
While Andrew’s there, he notices that no one is dancing. So, because he’s a relentlessly invasive cornball, he makes it his mission to get everyone on their feet. Partly this is a ruse to ask a cute mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), to dance. In order to do this, though, he must impress Domino’s autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).
While he’s flirting with Domino, the other moms at the party ask Andrew to be a “party starter,” which is apparently a real thing. He says yes, even though Greg the stepdad thinks it’s a bad idea. (Greg thinks everything Andrew does is a bad idea, and well so would you if you had to live with him.) But Andrew’s mom wants to support her son, so she suggests he start a company.
On top of making parties cooler and more fun, Andrew also assumes a new job as Lola’s babysitter — all the better to win the family’s affection over her career-focused dad (Raúl Castillo).
The Poochie problem
Cooper Raiff is not an isolated problem. He was neither the first self-involved little man to make movies in which he plays an irresistible force of magnetism, nor will he be the last.
Ground zero was probably when Woody Allen decided he was a romantic leading man. Then came the milquetoast likes of Edward Burns and Eric Schaeffer, who made movies all about their own very boring love lives.
Raiff is merely the latest incarnation. And despite the modern pop music and streaming-ready flat images, Cha Cha Real Smooth could have been released in 1991. Narcissism has no sell-by date.
Putting the ‘shit’ in Shithouse
Raiff’s first film, which he self-financed and then sold to the likeminded Jay Duplass by bothering him on Twitter, was about an aimless guy who bothers and stalks his first college hook-up until she has no choice but to fall in love with him and demand they date.
Shithouse was intolerable. Raiff’s itchy screen presence and his bizarre sexual politics combined to make a uniquely unpleasant movie. (Duplass and his brother Mark also made their name making movies where their intensely upsetting love lives and personal journeys are charted in indifferently photographed independent movies.)
Cha Cha Real Smooth is more of the same and yet somehow worse. Raiff presents himself as the kind of irrepressible free spirit and good-time guy that everyone wants to sleep with or marry to their child.
They love him. Everyone loves him and trusts him — and he’s always in the right. Much like Homer Simpson’s short-lived Poochie character on The Itchy and Scratchy show, whenever he’s not on screen, everyone asks, “Where’s Cooper Raiff?”
It’s his world and the price of admission is instant and unwavering fealty and sexual attraction — and paying heavily if you doubt him.
Let’s not tell anybody about this
In his films, Raiff introduces beautiful women — played in Shithouse by Dylan Gelula and in this mess by Dakota Johnson — who are so drawn to him that they all but hold him down and force him to love them. His screen persona is the nicest guy on the block, even though you can’t stand five uninterrupted minutes with the guy.
The idea of starting this movie with a flashback to an older woman breaking his heart is so perfectly in keeping with Raiff’s pathetic attempts at ingratiation: He’s so cute, how could anyone say no to his advances, his bizarre forms of flirting, his refusal to leave anyone alone?
In Cha Cha Real Smooth, Johnson’s character Domino instantly and implicitly loves and trusts Raiff’s party boy and throws herself at him 10 minutes after having a miscarriage. She makes come-hither eyes at Andrew and wants him to be her daughter’s new dad. This despite the first thing he says to her, after hearing that Lola is autistic, is, “I sometimes think I’m autistic” (which he then says is a lie).
Domino thinks that’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard. And Andrew will later do the same thing and claim his dad has ALS at a job interview.
Charming or sociopathic? You be the judge.
Classic, charming funny guy behavior. Not at all the mind of a creepy sociopath whose idea of empathy involves being embarrassing so other people have someone to laugh at. Unlike in real life, the women in Raiff’s movies stop laughing and start lusting after him moments later.
Everyone thinks Raiff’s characters are cute and charming and wonderful. Every character who doesn’t is drawn as an awful bastard who needs to learn how to love him.
Raiff’s dead, muroid eyes, his constant use of “funny” voices and embarrassing words like smooch and booty, his Patch Adams style of trying to make everyone cut loose, his supposedly inexhaustible stores of humility in a movie all about how famously beautiful actresses want to sleep with him … every one of these characteristics is more cloying than the last.
His performance in Cha Cha Real Smooth is like nails on a chalkboard. He films himself doing pushups, before interrupting the act by saying, “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
He’s just like us! Except he spent millions of dollars getting Dakota Johnson to pretend she’s in love with him. If he’d spent this time making a Tinder profile instead, we could have been spared these nightmarishly earnest yet completely hollow movies.
Cha Cha Real Smooth in a nutshell
In Cha Cha Real Smooth, the movie’s “star” manages neither a single believable nor likable performance note. We see no memorable or interesting images. And whatever empathy is generated by Vanessa Burghardt‘s excellent performance as Lola is overshadowed by her director jumping around like an asshole trying to steal the spotlight from her.
And hey, you know what, it may be bad, but at least Cha Cha Real Smooth is nearly two hours long. Graham Greene once described John Ford’s Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie as “horrifyingly competent,” and I can think of no better description for this sad little man and his sad little movie.
Watch Cha Cha Real Smooth on Apple TV+
Cha Cha Real Smooth premieres June 17 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.