When Claudette Godfrey, the director of the SXSW Film and TV Festival, took the stage to introduce Eva Longoria‘s feature directorial debut Flamin’ Hot, she expressed what many people out there may be thinking about the film, sight unseen: ‘who wants to see a movie about the origin story behind a spicy snack?’
“This audience,” she continued, “knows better.”
That’s the gamble that Searchlight Pictures is making with this biopic of Richard Montañez, the Frito-Lay janitor-turned-marketer who realized that Mexican-Americans weren’t being served by the snack industry and needed something with a distinct flavor they could recognize as their own.
The Flamin’ Hot recipe definitely leans comedic, with Richard (Jesse Garcia) introduced as a common criminal who gets his act together to support his family. Nearly every other moment is rooted in humor, overwhelming the story’s dramatic notes in an effort to cater to audiences and show them a good time rather than a tale of hardship and struggle. Perhaps that’s the movie’s way of acknowledging the inherent silliness of its own premise.
Among the film’s funnier devices are Richard’s exaggerated impressions of white executives at Frito-Lay discussing corporate strategies and product updates. Richard owns many of the embellishments he takes, noting that his wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez), often reminds him that things didn’t happen the way he remembers them after audiences witness one particularly unbelievable scene.
While discussing the film at SXSW, Longoria stressed the importance of representation behind the camera as well as in front of it, and how her movie — decidedly a comedy — actively celebrates Latinx stereotypes as positive indicators of community. For example, when a young Richard is bullied for bringing burritos to school for lunch instead of bologna sandwiches, he quickly learns to take advantage of standing out by selling burritos to the student body for 25 cents apiece. The process of creating what will become Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is a spirited family activity that involves sampling the spiciest ingredients possible to find just the right balance of mouth-burning deliciousness.
Flamin’ Hot has a very specific tone in mind and it sticks to that tone for its entire runtime. Richard is set up as an unlikely hero who wants to achieve more than what other people tell him his station in life is supposed to be. There are a number of regressive moments in which Richard faces discrimination and must defend his own value, which has come under attack, but his journey toward becoming a monumental success is a predictable one featuring the familiar cinematic benchmarks that typically appear in most biopics. Anything this movie exaggerates for cinematic effect further emphasizes this is a piece of entertainment rather than, say, the outright truth.
Garcia, who is immensely charismatic and fun to watch as Richard, leads a competent cast featuring standouts such as Annie Gonzalez, who really commits to her role as Richard’s rock and primary motivator, as well as Dennis Haysbert, who plays his reluctant workplace mentor. Tony Shalhoub also has a fun role as Frito-Lay president Roger Enrico, who takes an interest in Richard’s tasty initiative.
Flamin’ Hot is a film best enjoyed alongside a big, excited audience that can appreciate its many references to and empowerment of the Latinx community in America, which is why it’s kind of a shame that Searchlight will be releasing the film on Hulu. Watching it at home should still make for a pleasantly entertaining experience, even without the benefit of a raucous SXSW crowd that’s ready to have a good time.
Flamin’ Hot had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival and it will be released on Hulu on June 9 by Searchlight Pictures.