One might admire his effort to treat a serious subject like grief—while also touching upon touchy issues like class and cultural differences in modern America—in a quirkily whimsical way, but Irish writer-director Joe Talbot’s heartfelt but erratic “Papi Chulo” proves a woefully misguided comedy-drama.
The picture begins when Sean (Matt Bomer), an ordinarily ebullient gay man, breaks down in tears during his weather segment on a local Los Angeles television station and is ordered to take some time off by his boss Ash (Wendi McLendon-Covey). He’s still suffering from the departure of his lover Carlos six months earlier, and obsessively calls the man just to hear his voice-mail message and leave reports on how he’s doing, though he expects no response. In the latest, he tells Carlos that he’s removed a large potted tree from the deck of the house they shared overlooking a canyon, the last remnant of their lives together.
Unfortunately, the pot leaves a circle on the deck very different from the wood around it, which had been painted blue, and so will remain a continuing reminder of the life Sean no longer enjoys with Carlos. So he’s off to the hardware store to buy a pint of paint to cover it, but of course when he brushes it on, the result is much darker than the weathered color elsewhere. Realizing that the entire thing will need to be redone, he decides to hire one of the dayworkers standing in the store’s parking lot to do the job.
The one Sean chooses is Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a chubby fellow who speaks as little English as Sean does Spanish. Still, he rambles on incessantly in English as the man tries to work, obviously more in need of somebody to talk to than a guy to paint his deck. He’s constantly bringing Ernesto glasses of water and insists he join him for lunch, and soon he’s inviting the man to join him for a boat ride, or a hike. Eventually he’ll even take Ernesto with him to a party, where his friends think they’re a couple.
Ernesto’s fellow dayworkers begin joshing him for his new friendship as well, and, as he reports to his wife (Elena Campbell-Martinez) in a series of bemused phone calls as the job goes on and on, he’s not so certain of what’s happening himself. Still, the curious relationship continues for a time until Sean makes a mistake and finds himself again totally alone. It’s here that Talbot finally reveals why he’s so despondent over Carlos’ absence, and why his relationship with Ernesto has become so important.
Unfortunately, it’s also at this stage that the film goes seriously wrong. Sean tries to return to work, only to find that Ash thinks it’s far too early. He endures what amounts to a psychological collapse, half farcically slapstick and half brutally tragic. He arranges for an anonymous hookup, but when the man (Ryan Guzman) comes calling, the visit is a poignant disaster. Things grow even worse when he goes searching for Ernesto at home, getting robbed and drunk in the process, and when he finds his erstwhile employee with his family and friends, it turns into a gigantic embarrassment, though one that leads to his finally coming to terms with what he’s suffered and deciding to move on in his life.
“Papi Chulo” undoubtedly means well, but ultimately it miscalculates badly in using Ernesto and his fellow Latinos as props—likable and supportive, but still props—in the story of a white man’s salvation. And while Patiño is genially low-key as Ernesto, Bomer comes on so strongly as Sean that he becomes a prissy stereotype who never convinces us of his character’s supposed depths of feeling. This is pretty much a two-hander, so the rest of the cast has little opportunity to stand out; but all of them fill their functional roles adequately, as does the technical team, with cinematographer Cathal Watters making good use of the Southern California locations.
As much as Talbot might want to do justice to the unlikely friends he’s created, in the end his film condescends to them both—and to us.