“Flamin’ Hot” stretches the “based on a true story” line to the breaking point.
The story of a janitor turned marketing guru Richard Montañez got debunked by the L.A. Times two years ago with Frito Lay’s blessing. It’s still possible to savor much of Eva Longoria’s feature directorial debut which proves snappy, sincere and impossible to hate.
The film’s eagerness to tweak our emotions hits a critical point mid-film, though, and won’t give up until the end credits role.
Jesse Garcia stars as Richard, a good-natured soul battered by American racism and a disapproving Daddy (“Sons of Anarchy” alum Emilio Rivera). Richard flirts with hood life until he meets Judy (Annie Gonzales) and becomes a father.
That leaves little time for thuggery, so Richard finds work as a janitor with Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant.
He refuses to settle for that entry-level gig. He plots ways to creep up the corporate ladder, knowing his family demands more than what a janitor’s salary can afford. He befriends a talented mechanic (Dennis Haysbert, who oozes gravitas as well as any living actor) but is continually rebuffed by casually racist superiors.
Richard won’t give up, and when he tinkers with a signature Frito-Lay chip he stumbles onto a snack that could revolutionize the company.
Longoria keeps the tone light and comedic, using snappy musical cues and clever camera work to boost that spirit. It’s in sharp contrast to the forces aligned against Richard. He faces oppression in nearly every sequence, which sometimes proves as dubious as Richard’s Frito-Lay claims.
There’s little doubt Mexican immigrants from the era faced their fair share of bigotry, but it’s trotted out early and often here in a manipulative fashion. The same holds true for Richard’s long, slow professional ascent. We’re led to believe racism reared its head in every part of an immigrant’s life, but Richard’s story belies that reality.
The film also fails to grant Frito-Lay CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) the nuance the character demands. His soft spot for a fellow entrepreneur is touching, but the movie spends so much time shredding the capitalistic system that it’s odd to worship an industry titan like Enrico.
Shalhoub is a fine actor and handing him a more complicated role would have elevated the story beyond a straight-to-streaming vehicle.
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“Flamin’ Hot” plays fast and loose with more than the core story in play. It showcases gang life as an adorable part of Mexican culture, a running gag that grows stale over the film’s otherwise efficient running time.
Longoria is one of Hollywood’s most outspoken progressives, and she confirms that status with an out-of-the-blue swipe at President Ronald Reagan’s economic record.
“I didn’t know politics affected people, especially hard-working people like us,” Richard says via one of many narrated moments. It’s like the progressive Longoria broke the fourth wall to remind us of her off-screen inclinations.
The irony is obvious.
“Flamin’ Hot,” whether marginally accurate or complete fiction, honors hard work and refutes the Left’s victimhood narrative.
Richard could have given up at any point in his journey. Others might have done just that. He knows that as a proud Mexican, and a father of two, he couldn’t take the easy way out. He had to keep hustling, and keep innovating, until his breakthrough moment arrived.
And it did, later than expected but full of rich, satisfying rewards. That’s the American dream many immigrants crave.
DeVon Franklin co-produced a film that takes lazy jabs at both faith and those who embrace it without much of a corrective arc. Rich and Judy pray at one point in the movie, but it’s played more for laughs than any spiritual balm.
Richard Montañez, creator of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto and inspiration behind the new @FlaminHotMovie, talks about success for all Latinos in the business world and beyond. #LALIFF2023 pic.twitter.com/Y0REDy1kFY
— LALIFF (@LALIFF) June 1, 2023
It’s impossible not to cheer on Garcia’s performance, gritty and uplifting, but the screenplay is so nakedly devious it’s equally hard not to cry foul. Every step Richard takes is met by ignorance, bigotry or just de facto cruelty.
The movie clicks when it lets the characters and the gentle moments that capture their community lead the way.
There’s a more accurate story to be told here, one in which a corporate giant wakes up to the blossoming Latino market and starts speaking to them with their chips.
The tale of a shrewd marketer who knew the public would eat up a fake but accurate story like so many Flamin’ Hot chips.
HiT or Miss: “Flamin’ Hot” serves up a spicy take on the American dream, albeit one which manipulates viewers at every turn.