There have been an increasing amount of stranger-than-fiction origin stories lately… with AIR, Tetris, Blackberry, and even the popular Frito-Lay spicy snacks, Flamin’ Hot. I have to admit I can’t handle spicy stuff (yes I know, my fellow Indonesian friends make fun of me ALL the time), so I have never even tasted Flamin’ Hot Cheetos until MSPIFF staff hand everyone a bag of it on my way into the movie.
I first heard of the buzz out of SXSW which likely got extra attention as it’s Eva Longoria’s directorial debut. The self-described Texican actress also has a CNN food show called Searching for Mexico where she argues that ‘Mexican food is ‘so much more’ than tacos and tequila.’ Well, after watching this movie, one would easily have cravings for Mexican food!
Richard’s origin story is narrated by Jesse Garcia who plays the role with equal spunk and charm. Growing up in California, the precocious kid was bullied as the only brown kid in elementary school. But that doesn’t dampen his entrepreneurial spirit as he manages to monetize his own burrito lunch his mother made him to others students, starting with those who bully him. He strives to live an honest life after he meets Judy, a fellow Mexican in school but ends up falling in with the gang’s life just like his dad did. ‘When the world treats you like a criminal, you end up becoming one’ he says when a cop arrests him thinking he stole all the money he collects from selling those burritos.
Writers Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick keep the tone mirthful and light despite dealing with difficult topics like racism and social injustice. But themes of perseverance permeate through every scene even as Richard and Judy (vivacious Annie Gonzalez) barely make ends meet as a married couple. Thanks to his friend Tony (Bobby Soto) who works at a Frito-Lay plant, Richard manages to get a job there as a janitor. The saying ‘behind every successful man, there stands a woman’ couldn’t be more true in Montañez’s household. Judy is so integral in Richard’s success from the start–from helping him with the job application to running the household while juggling her own job AND raising their kids.
Once he starts working at the factory, Richard diligently observes the corporate ladder and takes an initiative to shadow the factory’s engineer Clarence (Dennis Haysbert, with his signature dignified poise). Clarence was annoyed initially, but Richard’s persistence wins him over and he ends up teaching him how the machines work. Despite his hard work and lofty ambition, he’s still stuck at the bottom of the food chain for over a decade. Longoria employs an inventive way to show the year-after-year factory grind and declining economy during the Reagan era that leads to layoffs.
Then suddenly the big light-bulb moment hits him when Richard realizes that Latino people, including his own family, have always been putting chili and spicy flavors to various snacks to their liking. He promptly collects a bunch of unflavored corn puff snacks that are going to waste and starts creating his own spicy flavors at home. The scenes of how Richard turns his kitchen into a food science lab and his wife and kids into an experimental AND focus group department are a lot of fun to watch. The entire cast is so winsome that you just want them to succeed!
Richard’s Cinderella story doesn’t happen overnight and things don’t get into motion until he gets the attention of Frito-Lay CEO Roger Enrico (Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub who can practically play ANY ethnicity). Everything about this whole idea-pitching and presenting Richard’s vision to Enrico has a decidedly fantastical and feel-good vibe of a rags-to-riches story.
After watching this, I was curious just how factual this story is. I found out that there have been controversies that refute Montañez’s claim as the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. But the filmmakers argue that ‘enough of the story is true,’ and the film is actually based on the books written by Montañez himself.
Does learning the truth dampen my feelings about the movie? Not quite, but it does confirm my feelings that some scenes are way too good to be true. But even if Montañez didn’t actually have any role in creating or marketing the Flamin’ Hot brand, he was able to rise through the ranks from floor worker to marketing director. So even though his tale might be more of an urban legend, as a piece of entertainment, Flamin’ Hot is a rousing and heartwarming family movie.
Longoria has wisely chosen a story that’s close to her heart in her foray into film directing. I love the message about being proud of one’s own heritage and believing one can do great things. Though her direction may be lacking in nuances, the movie has so much heart and showcases her flair for tackling comedy. The entire audience laughs loudly at the hilarious ‘dream sequences’ where the Frito-Lay executives are speaking in Mexican slang to each other.
One thing for sure, Flamin’ Hot is a proud celebration of the Mexican heritage with an empowering message for the Hispanic community and beyond.
Flamin’ Hot will premiere on Hulu and Disney+ on June 9th!
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