Although it’s playing fast and loose with the history of the person and the product it has been built around, director Eva Longoria’s Flamin’ Hot offers up an easily digestible, not-all-that-spicy inspirational tale. It’s the latest in a streak of recently released films celebrating the invention of famous consumer products that changed the world – following Ben Affleck’s Air, Jon S. Baird’s Tetris, and Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry – and as such, it’s an unashamed shrine to the ups and downs of capitalism. But within an overly familiar structure and script lies a fairly entertaining movie about people of colour trying to carve out a space for themselves in American society.
Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) is a father, husband, natural born hustler, reformed petty thief, and proud Chicano struggling to earn a living in 1980s Southern California, encountering various forms of racism every time he attempts to land a new job. With the help of his strong wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez), and almost no support from his once-abusive-now-born-again-Christian father (Emilio Rivera), Richard tries to rise through the ranks at his latest employer, Frito Lay. Employed as a janitor, Richard is keen to learn everything he can about the plant he works at with the hope of one day landing a position as a machinist. Those plans change in the Reagan years and their aftermath, as the plant is continually forced to lay off employees and is under constant threat of closure. A brainstorm leads to Richard formulating an idea for a new product: a spicy seasoning that can go on a variety of products and will be marketed towards the community he knows so well. But getting anyone in upper management to trust the ideas of a janitor will prove easier said than done.
Viewers will know immediately what they’re in for with Flamin’ Hot, which launches instantaneously into “that’s me/I suppose you’re wondering how I got here” style narration. Flamin’ Hot never breaks from its conventional, textbook inspirational biography template, with the script from Lewis Colick (October Sky, Ladder 49) and Linda Yvette Chávez never meeting a threadbare cliche it didn’t want to embrace. There are big speeches, tender family moments, large crowds of people banding together for a common good, a plea to save a factory, a product testing montage, weaselly racist baddies who refuse to acknowledge their prejudice, a wise mentor character (here played nicely by Dennis Haysbert), setbacks that are made to feel like they have life or death stakes, and successes that are framed as nothing less than miracles from God. Subtle, Flamin’ Hot is not, and far too often this adherence to convention feels like a celebration of jobs that aren’t as glamorous as they are made to look here (especially in a moment where a far too excited Richard is power-washing grease out of an industrial tank, which if you’ve ever had to do that, you would know that’s nothing to be happy about).
But one thing that Flamin’ Hot script gets right is the overall spirit of watching marginalized people carving out a place for themselves by any means necessary. Cliches or not, Flamin’ Hot still feels closely tied to the Chicano community, and captures it at a point in time where things weren’t so bright. Granted, the film is built around a marketing executive whose contributions to their company have been wildly inflated here, but that sense of pride for one’s family and friends shines through brightly. That aspect of Flamin’ Hot counts for a lot because it’s what Longoria and her performers latch onto the most.
Longoria, who has directed plenty of television prior to this feature effort, proves to have strong, stylish instincts. Flamin’ Hot is a handsome looking, often playful production with a lot of energy and flash. Longoria has a keen understanding that a lot of this material has been reframed as inspirational, wish fulfillment fantasy designed to give off crowd pleasing vibes, and as such, she never takes things too seriously unless the situation calls for it. Longoria understands the tone of the script perfectly and leans into it, which is vastly preferable to someone trying to twist this into a self-serious screed about the joys of menial labour.
The other huge ace in the hole Longoria has is Garcia, who oozes charisma and delivers an exceptional leading performance as Montañez. It takes a lot of effort to make a script like this sound less annoying (especially with the omnipresent narration throughout), but Garcia is more than up to the task. Garcia depicts Montañez not as an optimist or a pessimist, but as an enthusiast, displaying a sense of wide eyed wonder and nailing the tone of someone who is constantly striving to better themselves. Even though the overall message of Flamin’ Hot sometimes dances uncomfortably close to saying “you’ll do the job we’ll give you and like it,” it’s the humanity brought to the film by Garcia and Longoria that makes it a winner overall.
Flamin’ Hot is streaming on Disney+ in Canada and Hulu in the U.S. starting Friday, June 9, 2023.
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