Producer: DeVon Franklin Director: Eva Longoria Screenplay: Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chavez Cast: Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Emilio Rivera, Dennis Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub, Matt Walsh, Bobby Soto, Pepe Serna, Vanessa Martinez, Jimmy Gonzales, Brice Gonzalez, Peter Diseth and Carlos S. Sanchez Distributor: Searchlight Pictures/Hulu
Richard Montañez’s account of how as a janitor at Frito-Lay he invented the recipe for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and was instrumental in turning the brand into a huge seller—recounted in a couple autobiographical books—is characterized as a feel-good Mexican-American success story in this feature directorial debut from actress Eva Longoria. Montañez’s version of the snack’s origin has been disputed, of course, but “Flamin’ Hot” simply skirts the controversy, portraying him as a little guy who triumphs over all the social and economic obstacles stacked against him—with some help from a farsighted corporate bigwig. So you could say it’s the saga of the birth of a spicy-flavored corn puff presented in the form of pretty bland Capra-corn.
The screenplay by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chavez frames the action with plenty of narration by Montañez (Jesse Garcia), who begins with a description of his hardscrabble childhood as the child of farm workers Vacho (Emilio Rivera) and Concha (Vanessa Martinez) and the prejudice they faced from Anglos. His innate cleverness and the rampant bigotry are conjoined in an episode when, as a kid in elementary school (played by Carlos S. Sanchez), he outwitted bullies by using a ruse to convince them how delicious burritos are and then selling them his mother’s homemade ones at a quarter each, only to be assumed to be a thief by a cop when he tried to spend his profits. That sort of juxtaposition recurs periodically throughout the movie.
The action quickly proceeds to his less-than-legal youthful activity in neighborhood drug-running—the explanation is that if society presumes you’re a criminal because of the color of your skin, so what other choice is there?—before recounting his meeting with Judy (Annie Gonzalez), the virtuous protester whom he married. His decision to get on the right side of the law and search for honest work stemmed from his family responsibilities rather than the constant criticism of Vacho, who had by then abandoned the gruff volatility of Richard’s childhood and become fervently religious and judgmental. .
With the help of Tony (Bobby Soto), a former gang leader turned straight, and Judy, who helped him finesse his application form, Richard secured the janitorial job at Frito-Lay, determined to succeed. His hard-driving floor manager Lonny (Matt Walsh) might not have been impressed by his eager enthusiasm, but eventually he overcame the initial suspicions of self-made chief engineer Clarence Baker (Dennis Haysbert) to get taken on as his unofficial protégé, learning in the process that the factory workforce was as much as caste system as the wider society, but that excellence could still win out against it.
Richard toiled away at his menial tasks for more than a decade before his eureka moment, at a time when a slowdown in sales threatened layoffs and even the closure of the factory. Inspired by a lunchtime video from company head Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) and by his own kids’ love of spicy elotes, he used his family to experiment on adding chili to Cheetos as a way of appealing to the growing but underserved Latino market. When finally he’d come up with a winning recipe, he called Enrico directly to pitch the product, and the company CEO invited him to provide a sample, which led to a test run in Southern California. When one of Enrico’s subordinates (Peter Diseth) undermined the product by failing to advertise it, Richard and his friends took it upon themselves to introduce it to the Latino community directly, and the rest is history, or at least Montañez’s version of it, as sales of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos took off, the factory and its jobs were saved, and Richard was promoted by Enrico to a management position in charge of multicultural marketing.
Longoria mostly handles this rags-to-riches tale genially, a quality reinforced by Garcia’s ebullient personality. But she’s always alert for opportunities to add glances at the American inclination to undervalue Latino contributions to the larger society, though she’s careful to balance them with episodes showing more enlightened characters—Baker and Enrico, for instance—prizing ability over preconception. Overall her treatment is, apart from a few imaginative moments (one covering the passage of years, for instance), relatively workmanlike, so that by the last act the film comes to feel rather clunky. Her work with the cast, moreover, is surprisingly uneven; Garcia, as well as veterans like Shalhoub and Haysbert, come off well; others, like Rivera, fare more poorly, overplaying badly. On the technical side, things are adequate but hardly outstanding, with decent work from production designers Brandon Mendez and Cabot McMullen, cinematographer Federico Cantini and editors Kayla M. Emter and Liza D. Espinas, as well as composer Marcelo Zarvos.
Like Montañez himself, “Flamin’ Hot” is eager to please, and to an extent it will. But it’s a bland piece of work that would have been spicier had it dealt with Richard’s dispute with the company about the way the red corn curls came to be (which reportedly led to his retirement); that would have been a real portrait of American corporate practice. As it is, both he and Frito-Lay come off well, workers and bosses united in a common purpose—to bolster the bottom line in a triumphant display of capitalist camaraderie. The American dream; as in, “Dream On.”