Flamin' Hot does not revolutionize the biopic, nor does it reveal anything particularly biting or insightful about the creation of the groundbreaking and beloved snack from which it draws its name. But what it does offer is a crowd-pleasing story of perseverance, a celebration of Chicano culture, and a rather funny story with an unreliable narrator that plays out like a feature-length version of Michael Peña's Luis narrating gossip in the Ant-Man movies.
Eva Longoria's feature directorial debut deals primarily with two moments in history: first the Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s, as Mexican-Americans fought back against systemic racism and oppression with a movement that celebrated their culture and identity in the open. It’s tackled with a solemn eye that celebrates how far Latinos have come in America while condemning the systemic oppression that still plagues the community. Then, Longoria takes what can be a boring subject – the Snack Wars of the 1990s, where manufacturers struggled with slumping sales in a post-Reagan recession and innovation became key – and makes it fun.
Smack in the middle of these two events we find Richard Montañez (Jessie Garcia), one of 10 siblings raised in a migrant labor camp in California where he faces a lack of opportunity, racist bullies at school, and police discrimination on the daily.
Flamin' Hot plays kind of like a comedic Latino Goodfellas.
But Richard is smart, he is charismatic, and he works around things. The first act has some of Flamin’ Hot’s best moments as it plays kind of like a comedic Latino Goodfellas that pokes fun at rise-and-fall stories with tongue firmly in cheek. First, we see Richard hustling his way into a lucrative business selling burritos at school to the very bullies who mock his traditional food. Then, after marrying his childhood sweetheart Judy (Annie Gonzalez) and spending a brief time in crime, Richard turns his life around by getting a job as a janitor at a Frito-Lay factory to support his growing family, telling the hiring manager he has a Ph.D.: he's poor, hungry, and determined.
But wait, you might ask – isn't this supposed to be the movie about the creation of the titular Flamin' Hot Cheetos? Well yes, kind of. Flamin’ Hot gets to its invention and (the now-disputed claims of) how the real Richard Montañez single-handedly came up with the idea of the spicy snack that forever changed Frito-Lay. But the script, written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chavez, smartly sidelines the snack and instead focuses squarely on Richard’s inspirational underdog story about trying to make a name for himself in a world that wants to bring him down, even if that results in a superficial film.
The script has as much nutritional value as a single Cheeto, but it compensates with cheerful charisma.
Flamin' Hot doesn't get that deep into its characters or its plot. After about 15 minutes into this 99-minute movie you pretty much know exactly what each character is about and what they'll do throughout the story. There are all the classic archetypes for an inspirational biopic, including the supportive wife, the disappointed and estranged father, the strict and judgemental (and also racist) boss, and the initially uncaring mentor who grows to be an important figure in the life of our protagonist. The script has as much nutritional value as a single Cheeto, but it compensates with cheerful charisma and a feel-good tone that's primed to please crowds.
That starts with the performances. Jessie Garcia is fantastic as Richard and capable of carrying Flamin’ Hot, capturing the sense of perseverance required by the story, balancing the more business-talk parts of the plot with a good sense of humor and plenty of one liners, turning a character that is otherwise a one-dimensional aspirational figure into someone who’s at least entertaining to listen to.
This is where Flamin’ Hot truly shines: its constant shifting of tones and hilarious fantasy sequences. Longoria uses Richard's narration in a Drunk History manner, showing us a group of actors (mostly businessmen in meetings) acting out what he narrates. This serves two purposes: First, it makes comedy out of dull corporate meetings, as Richard explains the inner dealings of the Frito-Lay company at the time and how it allowed for his success story. But the second purpose is that these scenes paint him as an unreliable narrator, one that gets too excited about his own story, commenting on how his wife always says he exaggerates certain bits. Aided by some fantastic editing and the use of quick cuts, these scenes are the highlight of Flamin’ Hot.
Likewise, Annie Gonzalez's performance adds enough to the character of Judy to give what is a typical supporting wife enough depth and nuance to stand out. She is the rock that supports the entire story, the brains of the operation who wouldn't just sit around waiting for Richard to accomplish something – she is already 10 steps ahead of him. Plus, her no-nonsense attitude when dealing with injustices and naysayers seems designed to instantly bring about cheers in theaters.
All the while, Longoria avoids the washed-out look that plagues so many movies nowadays, instead choosing vibrant colors to celebrate the cultural history of the story being told. During early scenes of protests and parades, or just smaller moments like the family going to markets to buy out every hot pepper they can find, the colors of the chiles pop to a point where you might almost think Flamin’ Hot is presented in Smell-O-Vision. She even plays with – and mocks – Hollywood's usual oversaturation for scenes set in Latin America in a clever way.
Flamin' Hot is not the complex story of the making of the titular snack, nor a deep exploration of Richard Montañez’s life story, but it is nevertheless a feel-good, crowd-pleasing tale of perseverance. Director Eva Longoria crafts a celebration of Chicano culture, one that uses the comedic chops of its lead actor to deliver hilarious narration that makes otherwise dull marketing and business talk become a laugh fest. It’s otherwise a formulaic and unsurprising story, but it’s delivered in a spicier way that makes it more appealing – much like its inspirational snack.