Sundance 2022

Nice Guys Deserve to Finish Last in Cooper Raiff’s CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH


When the buzziest title at Sundance is the SHITHOUSE guy’s new movie, you know the modern state of independent film is caught in an awkward flux. Cooper Raiff returns two years after his pandemic darling to deliver another chronicle of the nicest guy anyone has ever met, starring, directed by, written by, and edited by Cooper Raiff. It’s a level of lo fi egocentric auteurism we haven’t seen this purely since the early 90s of Sundance, a later-chapter era of bearded white men insisting their own POV on the facts of life. It’s an approach that’s been such a source of ridicule that, however impressive it is for a 24-year-old to get two low-budget features and a burgeoning directing career off the ground in the middle of a viral genocide, I’m completely floored that Cooper Raiff has been given a pass. What happened to the high and mighty song-and-dances over how we’ve evolved past the showboating narcissism of, say, Tarantino introducing his debut film by personally performing a monologue over the opening titles? 

It’s difficult to pinpoint why Raiff’s been nominated to receive the indie golden ticket: there’s no shortage of low-stakes, feel-good affirmation porn on NBC, ABC, TBS, or CBS’s nightly lineups, nor is our annual barrage of high-grossing Disney products indicating that cinema has taken a turn for the despondently cynical. Raiff’s “I think feelings are cool” approach isn’t remotely refreshing. The factory that soups up syrupy sweet Bildungsromans by the metric ton has not only tripled their production output, but the widely accepted concept of “adulting” has only infantilized these stories even more. Raiff’s CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH character, Andrew, a post-grad in search of a plot, both charmingly and disturbingly finds excessive comfort in children’s social circles. He’s self-aware enough to hate his job at the mall food court, but daft enough to chant the lyrics of “WAP” to a Bar Mitzvah crowd of 7th graders. It’s also not clear if he was invited to this Bar Mitzvah. Nevermind that, the parents love him anyway.

The results are so flavorless, like if Xavier Dolan didn’t have homicidal tendencies, or if Columbia let some Encino stooge direct Singleton’s BOYZ N THE HOOD script, or if Jason Segel didn’t hate himself when writing FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE was the work of a once-in-a-generation maniac; CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH is the work of a normal, everyday sociopath. Where’s the spectacle in that? Much like how HBO’s EUPHORIA traps itself in a histrionic, self-centered feedback loop in its refusal to acknowledge its geographical setting or revolving social climate, CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH functions in a bubble. It’s a film about the freedom of fucking up since you have the safety net of living at home with your big pharma step-dad and your mom, Leslie Mann, who for some reason is also directed to maintain sexual tension with her onscreen son. It’s life on easy-mode. Character conflict is treated as a necessary evil, like vegetables Raiff has to shovel down before dipping his full fist in the fondue fountain. 

To watch CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH is to watch a megalomaniac live-produce his own Truman Show wherein Dakota Johnson (in another, admittedly, gorgeous performance as the most amiable MILF to bless planet Earth) is directed to immediately fall head over heels for a 23-year-old stranger, and Odeya Rush, despite stating her lack of attraction to the character, still sleeps with him for reasons even the script can’t truthfully muster. Johnson plays an aloof mother stuck between a rock (marrying a stoic, unlikable fiancé who only exists to harsh a scene’s vibe) and a hard place (running away with her autistic daughter to fall in love with the super-cute, ever-charming, dashing knight in shining armor, Andrew), but her inner life only exists to be reacted to by Andrew, it’s just a doozy of a directorial power trip.

A moment of matter-of-fact eroticism wherein the two swap Otter Pops feels right on the surface, but is quickly squashed by Andrew’s smarmy muttering and her back comically outstretched as she sucks on the actor-director-writer’s green apple. Bless her straight-faced, bordering on wooden, commitment to any role, but Johnson is an actor tugged along to realize a dream scenario—slight spoilers for a subplot that never materializes beyond its initial shock value, but she doesn’t even get her manic pixie miscarriage to herself. It’s wish fulfillment on behalf of artist and viewer no different than watching Scharzenegger fuck-and-slash in CONAN THE BARBARIAN or Van Damme karate chopping rattle snakes in HARD TARGET, but with somehow less charisma than the Western European meatheads. 

The bodybuilder macho men are at least cognizant of their grift, never once relinquishing their bravado for a glimpse of false humility. They know they’re crafting a self-validating fantasy for those seeking one, sans any ounce of pretension. Lob any deserving criticism you have at it, but ROCKY IV is not trying to tell you how it is as it is. In many ways, Stallone’s himbo opus is more sophisticated in its blending of grandiose “movie magic” and ear-to-the-pavement pragmatism than CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH accomplishes in its attempted deconstruction of screen-projected masculinity. Raiff made the same sausage, just with a different casing and cook. None of this is to say that cinema as an avenue for narcissism is a no-no. Hell, Mia Hansen-Løve casted Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska as personal cyphers in BERGMAN ISLAND a few months ago. Go off, queen, abuse your privileges. The difference lies in being honest with yourself and your audience about your selfish pursuits. And let’s be honest: if you’re making a movie, there’s nothing selfless about it. Whatever kindcore self-simulation Cooper Raiff is selling, and he’s definitely sweating his ass off to sell ittap-dancing with a huge grin while paying an ensemble to incessantly applaud his jigI’m not buying.

Kevin Cookman
Kevin Cookman is a Film Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. Deserted in a video store as an infant, Kevin was raised on Fulci, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Whoppers. Now he's a graduate of Chapman University who acts as editor for Merry-Go-Round on the side: what a success story.

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