The BOATS (Based On A True Story, if you’re not hip to the lingo) movie genre gets a mite dicey with Flamin’ Hot (now on Hulu and Disney+), a sort-of biopic based on disputed facts that might get in the way of the questionable stuff of a good story. Not that anyone should ever consider a movie made with actors and a script and editing and fake lighting and visual effects and all the other stuff of Hollywood as hard, pipe-hittin’ truth, mind you, BOATS movie or otherwise, and I’ll die on that hill. Eva Longoria directs her first feature film, adapting the autobiography of Richard Montanez, the former PepsiCo exec who claims to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while he was working as a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant – a claim that’s been disputed by the snack-food giant, which says his story isn’t quite 100 percent true. Those proceedings complicate the backstory of this movie somewhat, which plowed ahead with Montanez’s story anyway, rendering it a feelgood zero-to-hero saga that’ll make you feel warm inside, like you just ate a few handfuls of, well, you know.
FLAMIN’ HOT: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Meet Richard (Jesse Garcia). He’s Mexican, and grew up in Southern California, the son of a hardass working-class dad who toiled in a labor camp and spared the rod. Richard won over the kids at school who bullied him and threw around racial slurs by selling them his mom’s homemade burritos for a quarter a pop. “Man, Taco Bell didn’t introduce the world to burritos – me and my mom did,” Richard says via voiceover, with typical jokey embellishment. He befriended the other Mexican kid at school, a girl named Judy (Annie Gonzalez), who’d become his wife and the mother of his children and stick with him through thick and thin. And it was thin for a long time. Richard never finished school, and was always in trouble for dealing drugs and gangbanging. A judge let him off with a stern lecture and he straightened up, but struggled to feed his family. He hustled and hustled and hustled for a legit job, but prospective employers saw his criminal record and his lack of a diploma, and possibly/probably also his brown skin, and turned him away.
But Richard got a break. A friend at the Frito-Lay factory was his in. During his interview, he says, “I got a Ph. D. – I’m poor, hungry and determined sir.” And his manager (Matt Walsh) replies, “That’s just stupid,” but hires him anyway, to mop and sweep the factory floor and clean up all the machines. The thing that sets Richard apart from so many of us? He’s thrilled to do this thankless job. And he drives his coworkers crazy with his peppy enthusiasm: Hey, shouldn’t he be miserable, scrubbing crud off equipment? Why is he asking so many questions? Why is he so interested in how the plant churns out oodles and oodles of chips and doodles? Why is longtime engineer Clarence (Dennis Haysbert) taking the guy under his wing and showing him the ropes? Answers: Richard won’t be denied. His passion is charming if you’re not a cynical jerk. He’s just making the best of it. He also doesn’t want to be a janitor for the rest of his life. Even though that’s exactly where he’s stuck for the next decade or so, as he doesn’t climb the ladder at the plant, which struggles under the weight of 1980s economic trickle-down philosophies that leave almost nothing at the bottom for folks like Richard and Judy and their family, who struggle to afford things like Cheetos. He’s named employee of the month, and they’re applying for food stamps and being denied. Frickin’ Reagan.
Finally, it’s 1992. Richard is hanging on despite layoffs, and he’s still uptempo. A company guy. The only employee who actually pays attention to a state-of-the-union corporate video starring PepsiCo/Frito-Lay president Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub). One day, Richard’s son comes home from school with a shiner – another incident with bullies beating on the Mexican kid. He takes his boys out for spicy Mexican elote corn and gets inspired: Their people don’t want boring-ass cool ranch Doritos. They want something with flavor. With zing. And corporate suits are totally overlooking the growing Latino market. So he and Judy hit the kitchen to concoct their own spicy Cheeto dust, and somehow, through the grace of God or capitalism (if they aren’t one and the same), he lands an opportunity to pitches this hot new flavor to Mr. Enrico. And wouldn’t you know it – well, maybe his pitch will become the now-billion-dollar entity known as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, maybe it won’t. NO SPOILERS from me, bucko.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The year 2023 saw the formation of a new movie genre: the Birth of a Brand Bio (or BoBB, if you’re into the whole brevity thing). There’s the one about the basketball shoes (AIR), and the one about the phone with the keyboard (Blackberry), and the one about the Russian video game (Tetris), and now this one, about gross but also weirdly delicious junk food.
Performance Worth Watching: Garcia is fully committed to the anchor role here, and his buoyant tone goes a long way towards rendering this movie an enjoyable, fast-paced watch.
Memorable Dialogue: Clarence points out how the burned chips are snatched off the line and trashed, to which Richard replies, “Dang. People always trying to throw the brown ones away.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: As goes the protagonist, so goes this movie. Flamin’ Hot works a little too hard to be an ebullient crowdpleaser, but it’ll win you over with its relentless, upbeat energy. Longoria unleashes spirited montages and nurtures emotional family moments and, please forgive me, spices up weary biopic tropes just enough to make us feel slightly more than marginally invested in the story. We’re firmly situated in the underdog Richard’s corner as he, apologies in advance, ruffles feathers and forges his own destiny. And again, if you’re obsessing over the T parts of this – or any, really – BOATS movie, you’re wasting your time. Even though this story is about a real brand and a real man, both are absolutely privy to the machinations of artistic license, and this movie plays out like a story concocted by a fictional version of Richard Montanez who’s a bit of a bullshit artist.
Longoria and the cast foment enough goodwill to make us momentarily forget that the movie is manipulating our emotions in a quest for inspiration; that it’s sometimes simplistic in the way it addresses racial prejudice; that it’s another movie giving equal weight, intentionally or otherwise, but still troublingly, to both product placement and storytelling. The Richard-Judy stand-by-your-man love story is a key subplot that could use a little more oomph, but is nevertheless sweet; same goes for Richard’s relationship with his father (Sons of Anarchy vet Emilio Rivera), which gets shorter shrift. I laughed quite a bit as this movie flew by on fleet narrative feet and made, I beg your pardon, the most-ito of its 99 minutes.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Flamin’ Hot doesn’t break the mold, but it’s nevertheless, sorry sorry so sorry, sour cream and fun-ion.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.