Odeya Rush and Cooper Raiff in Soft Royal Cha Cha.
Cooper Raiff’s camera, it must be said, loves Cooper Raiff. Loves the way his eyes sparkle, the way his hair falls, the way his head bobs and sways awkwardly when he talks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: cameras must love their subjects, at least a little. But in Soft Royal Cha Cha, a comedy-drama that 25-year-old Raiff wrote, directed, produced and stars in, we’ve been waiting for the moment when his character becomes something more than a superficially adoring figure, when his story (as it is) will reach something like emotional cohesion or narrative. And most of the time, it never comes.
Soft Royal Cha Cha was one of the big success stories of this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, winning an audience award and enough accolades to land an expensive Apple TV+ distribution deal. These types of friendly, friendly “dramedys” are often appealing to Sundance audiences and acquisition executives, but tend to only cause a ripple after launch. It will be interesting to see if Soft Royal Cha Cha if it does better – or if, in the age of streaming, we can even accurately gauge how it “does”. Critics still seem to like it, though there are some signs it could be a little more divisive than expected. (A New York Schedules Last week’s review of Manohla Dargis was so brutal it went viral.)
Your tolerance for Soft Royal Cha Cha it will likely depend on your tolerance of Raiff himself as a cinematic presence. Your Andrew, a recent college grad who returned to his hometown of New Jersey to moan, lie down and work at a grim-looking fast-food joint called Meat Sticks, is a fast talker – but not the street type. or ambitious. The words come out of Andrew as if he’s mortified at the mere possibility of an awkward pause. He plays; he watches; he apologizes; he plays some more. His inability to tolerate discomfort or silence makes him fun at parties, however, and after he attends a bat mitzvah and impresses parents with his ability to get all the shy kids out on the dance floor, he lands a show as a “party starter”, touring the Jersey suburbs and giving life to several meetings.
A lot of Soft Royal Cha Cha follows Andrew’s relationship with Domino (Dakota Johnson), a vaguely troubled 30-something mother who falls in love with him after he manages to get her autistic daughter Lola (a fantastic Vanessa Burghardt) to dance. Andrew’s constant insistence that everyone have fun – his desperate, needy energy – stands in stark contrast to the brooding Domino and the reserved Lola. We are genuinely curious to see how this relationship can progress. Unfortunately, it doesn’t progress as much as just proceed, proceeding through all too familiar story beats with little sense of momentum or character development. Everyone seems to be there primarily to emphasize Andrew’s underlying decency.
Meanwhile, the maniacal insincerity of Raiff’s delivery drains every moment of the film – even some of the most intimate and dramatic – of any weight or power. It’s not that he doesn’t seem like a nice guy; it’s just that nothing he says or does seems particularly genuine. It also doesn’t help that, like Domino, Johnson goes a little too far for that pursed-lip acting method of hers. This looks more like a failure of direction than of performance; after her wonderful work in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s movie the lost daughter (a film in which she actually had less screen time), it’s disappointing to see the actress with so little to work with. The film seems to be interested in Domino primarily as a vessel of grief against which the hero can prove his worth. She is not the only one.
The rest of Soft Royal Cha Cha looks like a checklist of maturing elements. Andrew has a strained relationship with his mother’s new husband Greg (played by Brad Garrett, another excellent award-winning actor with little to do), but this conflict is not explored in any significant way; it seems like the two characters are at odds because, well, that’s how these types of characters are supposed to be in these types of movies. Andrew has a college girlfriend who studies in Barcelona and who he wants to team up with in Spain. He was supposed to be in love with her, but when he later sees an Instagram post of her with another man, I realized that I had completely forgotten who this woman was. There’s also a dispirited non-subplot about Andrew trying to teach his younger brother (Evan Assante) how to get his girlfriend’s (invisible) first kiss. But then again, it dropped so quickly that later, when the younger brother talked about him having his first kiss, I realized I had forgotten that this was a movie thing. Odeya Rush appears a few times as a friend with benefits, and I’m sure I forgot about her too. Either I’m freaking out, or Cooper Raiff should have spent a little more time on this script.
Maybe it’s all intentional. Perhaps all this is indicative of the emotional transience of youth. But what’s so disappointing about Soft Royal Cha Cha it’s his superficial view of growing up, which may explain why the protagonist does so little of it. The film seems to see adulthood as a series of dark compromises one must make for security and stability – a 25-year-old’s idea of what the rest of his life should be like. Andrew gets an uncomfortable truce with the notion that adults must get on without him. Until then, any interesting ideas this movie ever had were swamped by its narcissism.