‘Flamin’ Hot’ Review: Eva Longoria’s Directorial Debut Is An Inspiring Latino Rags To Riches Story – SXSW
There can be no doubt why Searchlight Pictures was excited to bring Flamin’ Hot, the true life story of the man known as the ‘godfather of hispanic marketing’, to the screen. Premiering today at SXSW, the life story of Richard Montanez — a high school dropout from a struggling Latino family who worked as a janitor in a Southern California Frito-Lay factory for 10 years — is, at its heart, really a Rocky-style inspirational tale perfect for the Hollywood treatment. He eventually realized the American dream and rose to one the highest ranks of the company,
In choosing Eva Longoria to make her directorial debut, they also have a budding filmmaker determined to make it authentic for the people it is about, not least in insisting and getting a largely Latino group of New Mexican actors, extras, and artisans to bring it to life. It is, unquestionably, a stand up and cheer, heartwarming tale of success against all odds, about a man who reportedly came up with the idea for Frito-Lays Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, a new brand at the time that would become a $25 billion dollar winner.
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I say “reportedly” because, even before production started in 2021 during Covid on this film, there was controversy over just who came up with it and how it evolved for the Flamin’ Hot recipe and brand. The film’s lighthearted narration by the main character plays with the idea that not everything presented here is a documentary, that some comes from the way Richard remembers it, or even fantasizes about the way it all happened. That is a smart move, because this crowd-pleasing and highly entertaining movie should not be penalized for possibly playing with some of the facts.
At its soul, it is not specifically about a product, like two other films showing at SXSW this year, the previously reviewed Blackberry and the upcoming Tetris. Rather, it is about a man who knows his community, believes in himself against all odds, and is a genius when it comes to knowing how to market to the people who share the same DNA — a huge market, by the way, that in the ’80’s and ’90’s, even ’70’s, where this story is largely set, was not being addressed in any major way by corporate America.
With a script by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chavez, based on Montanez’s book, “A Boy, A Burrito, And A Cookie: From Janitor To Executive,” as well as the life stories of Montanez and his wife, Judy, Longoria’s film uses a linear biopic approach to tell the story.
We see Montanez (Jesse Garcia) is a man who can’t catch a break, a loving father and husband to supportive Judy (Annie Gonzalez) who can barely fill out a job application. Finally, with the help of his working wife in embellishing his resume, but being called out on the falsehoods during the job interview, he does nevertheless land a job as a lowly janitor in a Frito-Lay factory.
There he shows his eagerness to succeed, and his curiosity about the product being made there. Despite being urged to just stay in his lane, and with discouraging words from his own father, Nacho (Emilio Rivera) who believes he just should be what is expected from someone of his station in life, he comes up with an idea for a very spicy flavoring and recipe to appeal to his own people.
We see him developing the idea, getting a prototype, attempting to get attention for it, and finally, in an audacious move, actually contacting PepsiCo’s CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) who is intrigued by this maintenance worker and his awkward but sincere pitch. When the boss visits the factory, Montanez gets his moment. From there, it is all about whether it can work or not, and how much credit this man will get.
Overall, the film Longoria has made is about a dreamer who makes that dream come true through sheer will and hard work. It is a classic rags to riches story, no matter the details of the actual making of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, because this is really about family, the making of the man, and the making of the most of a hard-fought opportunity.
Garcia is excellent as a guy we just want to root for, one who remarkably through it all still kept that Janitor’s job in order to keep his family together, all the while knowing he was worth so much more inside. Also terrific is Gonzalez as his wife and partner Judy, Rivera as his disapproving father, and Dennis Haysbert, wonderful here as Clarence, a coworker and early mentor at the factory.
Shalhoub, with straight hair for a change, is perfect as the CEO who sees the human being in a factory visit, rather than just another worker. Matt Walsh, Bobby Soto, and Pepe Serna also make impressions.
Given half a chance by Searchlight, the movie about a guy who needed ‘half a chance’ could be a sleeper hit, not just in the Latino community it is about, but to everyone who likes a good, old-fashioned, feel-good story about someone who succeeds against all odds.
Director: Eva Longoria
Screenwriter: Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chavez
Cast: Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Emilio Rivera, Dennis Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub, Matt Walsh, Bobby Soto, Pepe Serna
Running time: 129 Minutes
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
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