Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Flamin’ Hot’ Looks for Representation in American Mythmaking

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I’ve often said that movies aren’t real, and that’s never more true than when the movie purport to be based on fact. Movies are fiction, lies stuffed with half-truths to get at a more complicated truth in the center. They can be many things but rarely are they reliable historical records.

Which brings us to Eva Longoria’s directorial debut, Flamin’ Hot, about Richard Montanez (Jesse Garcia), the inventor of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and how he went from a janitor to a Frito-Lay factory to being the head of Marketing. I am not here to debunk what has already been debunked by the L.A. Times or even to wax rhapsodic about how truth is an illusion and movies use that illusion as a window into our souls where complex truths lie. I am here to talk about Longoria’s movie Flamin’ Hot which is not a flamin’ pile of trash nor a flamin’ great film; it’s okay.

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Lucky (Hunter Jones), Richard (Jesse Garcia), and Steven (Brice Gonzalez)

However, I found myself charmed by Longoria’s competent craftsmanship with dashes of personality I wish she would have leaned into more. Longoria is at her best when she and her screenwriters, Lewis Collick and Linda Yvette Chavez, play up the Chicano aspects of the story. Garcia’s Richard narrates much of the movie leading to, at times, imagining board meetings where businessmen act like cholos, with Longoria giving us two versions of the scene: one with the actors pantomiming with Richard providing the Spanish dialogue and the other the boring reality. It’s these little flourishes that give Flamin’ Hot a spicy kick.

Beneath all the capitalist propaganda about how if you work hard, you too can rise to the top, all the Richard coming to God and how his faith plays into his rise to success, is a quirky family melodrama with a lovable cast. In an era in which we are plagued with attractive people playing couples with zero chemistry, Longoria gives us Garcia’s Richard and Annie Gonzalez’s Judy, rife with endearment. They are not alone, as they have two kids, Lucky (Hunter Jones) and Steven (Brice Gonzalez), who, along with Richard and Judy, make for a compelling and endearing family,

Flamin’ Hot is rarely better than when it’s just spending a day in the life of Richard and Judy as they struggle to get by. Longoria, Colic, and Chavez deftly handle heavy topics such as child abuse, police brutality, and racism in L.A. with such a light and subtle touch that it’s a shame the movie isn’t better. More impressive is how Longoria and her scribes paint Chicano gangsters and drug dealers not as violent thugs but as men trying their best to provide for their families when no one else will hire them. She doesn’t judge these characters; on the contrary, she paints them with a full empathetic brush that, in another person’s hands, would be merely a caricature or a one note-joke.

I couldn’t care less about the film’s attempt at mythmaking or its attempt to reach for representation through consumerist hagiographies. Instead, the scenes where Richard confronts his father, Vacho (Emilio Rivera), about how convenient it is that he’s found God after he spent a lifetime beating his children. In these moments, Longoria blends drama with humanity without suffocating one for the other. Though Flamin’ Hot is a cynical production, Longoria’s direction is more prickly than what you’d expect a movie like this to be.

Flamin’ Hot may not be as polished as Air, but it is more honest about what it is in many ways. It doesn’t even pretend to be based on a true story. There’s no “The story you’re about to see” or any of that jazz. It’s just Richard talking about his life. When it’s just that, Richard talking about growing up in a migrant labor camp, or Longoria showing all the different microaggressions and casual racism Richard and his family endure, Flamin’ Hot is a compelling story about a slice of Chicano life.

The rest of Flamin’ Hot works, but not at the same level. Look, you can’t cast actors like Tony Shalhoub as Roger Enrico, the President of Frito-Lay, Dennis Haybert as the engineer Clarence C. Baker, who takes a liking to Richard and shows him how to run the machines, and Matt Walsh as the pain-in-the-ass middle manager Lonny, and not have a watchable movie. They are too talented, and Longoria is too good for them to go to waste.

It’s just that they are never as interesting as Richard and Judy. Garcia and Gonzalez are so charismatic that they make the parts of Flamin’ Hot that do work soar while making the other overtly calculated parts function without a hitch. They inhabit their characters and play them with an earnest honesty that is somewhat shocking in a movie like Flamin’ Hot

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Richard (Garcia) and Clarence (Dennis Haybert) attempt to package a dream

Granted, it helps that Longoria and her cinematographer Federico Cantini know how to light a diverse cast. I wish they indulged more in the little visual flourishes, such as how they show the passage of the Regan years, with different factory workers carrying boxes with passing years on them to show how the years trickle by. The scene’s visual is made all the more poignant by Richard’s line, “I didn’t know politics affect people. Especially hard-working people like us.” A scene that only becomes more poignant as Longoria and Cantini show us Richard and Judy attempting to get Food Stamps and Snap and showcasing how the welfare programs seem designed to make you feel guilty for needing them in America.

John Ford’s western fable The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has the iconic oft-repeated line, “In the west, when the legend becomes fact-print the legend.” Longoria and her writers have done just that, but in between the self-aggrandizing and propaganda is an identity of proud Chicanos trying to keep their heads above water. Calling Flamin’ Hot a competent feel-good movie may feel like faint praise but rest assured, there’s enough evidence to suggest Longoria is capable of better. Here’s hoping she gets that chance to prove it.

Image courtesy of Hulu & Disney+

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