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Writer and director Cooper Raiff stars in Cha Cha Real Smooth on Apple TV+.APPLE TV+

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Written and directed by Cooper Raiff

Starring Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson and Leslie Mann

Classification R; 107 minutes

Streaming on Apple TV+ starting June 17


Do nice guys finish last? If we’re to go by the movies, absolutely not – film is a medium of underdogs. And if we’re to go specifically by Cooper Raiff’s movies, why even bother to ask the question in the first place?

In 2020, the young filmmaker made the biggest kind of pandemic-era indie splash possible when his debut feature, the micro-budget dramedy with the million-dollar title S#!%house, was named the best narrative feature at the virtual SXSW festival. A college-set dramedy that was more interested in teasing clichés than revelling in them, Cooper’s one-man-band production – he wrote, directed, produced, co-edited and starred in the film – announced the arrival of a soft-hearted cineaste with intimidating DIY talent.

Playing a lonely college student who mistakes a fellow dorm-mate’s fleeting interest for full-fledged romance, Raiff delivered an endearingly scruffy spin on Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and the mumblecore milestones of the Duplass brothers. His lovestruck freshman was a typical Nice Guy, but one in desperate need of a reality check, which Cooper’s script served up in an enjoyably messy fashion.

I’m not sure, though, that Raiff took away quite the right lessons from S#!%house when making his follow-up, Cha Cha Real Smooth. While Apple TV+ certainly sees potential here – the streamer plopped down a cool US$15-million for the film after its Sundance Festival debut – my view of Raiff’s obvious filmmaking strengths are clouded by his increasingly cringe-y nice-guys-deserve-to-finish-first naiveté. It is a shallow world view that is either distressingly permanent, or perhaps more temporary – a curable symptom of next-level success. Either way, Raiff’s decision to cast himself as an embarrassingly shiny white knight in Cha Cha belies any, ahem, real smoothness.

Leslie Mann, left, and Brad Garrett play Raiff's mom and stepdad in Cha Cha Real Smooth.APPLE TV+

Still, there is a charming romcom nugget lodged within the cracks of Cha Cha – at last, we have the first film to explore the deliciously awkward depths of the bar-mitzvah circuit! That’s something, no?

Raiff stars here as Andrew, a recent college graduate who has zero personal or professional prospects. After moving back in with his mother (Leslie Mann), gruff stepfather (Brad Garrett) and shy-but-spunky younger half-brother (Evan Assante), Andrew stumbles onto a gig as a bar-mitzvah DJ. In between urging kids to do the horah and swiping drinks from the open bar, Andrew strikes up a relationship with Domino (Dakota Johnson), who is shepherding her autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt) through the mazel-tov-laden mishegoss.

As Raiff’s romantic interest, the dependably compelling Johnson once again does an awful lot with very little. Domino is a half-built character whose persona rests on being damaged enough to accept Andrew’s all-healing love. Raiff can be charming in a disarming kind of way, and Johnson almost sells her depressed-but-horny character hard enough, but both leads are failed by Raiff’s own ingratiating screenplay.

The filmmaker simply takes it as a given that we’re supposed to view Andrew as the one true sincere man in the room, when even a little objective narrative distance reveals that his hero is as much a dud as the world’s many not-so-nice-guys (personified here by Domino’s absentee husband). And then there’s the film’s criminal waste of Leslie Mann, whose bipolar character is almost completely forgotten once Domino enters the story.

S#!%house genuinely engaged with the complexities of insecure, imbalanced romantic relationships, and the flawed men who pursued them. Cha Cha Real Smooth settles for a sickly sweet sitcom approach. As Andrew might sigh during a bar-mitzvah shift: oy vey.

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