Listen, I love a delicious salty snack just as much as the next one. And if you promise not to tell my cardiologist, I’ll even admit to devouring my fair share of Cheetos. But a feature film about the man who claims to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? That seems a bit far-fetched. I mean when I was eating them I never thought the experience would be enhanced by learning the backstory. What’s next, an epic drama about the creator of Twizzlers?
Well, I’m here to eat my hat, or at least some more Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, because Flaming hot, which is making its world premiere at SXSW before streaming on Hulu in June, is proving to be an utterly delightful rags-to-riches tale that should appeal to anyone in need of uplifting. Superbly directed by Eva Longoria, this amusing and moving film defies expectations as much as its main character.
It comes down to
A spicy treat.
That would be Mexican-American Richard Montañez, fantastically played by Jesse Garcia (Quinceanera). He gets involved with gangs and petty crimes in his teens, until he goes straight after his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez, endearingly) gets pregnant for the first time. With the help of his best friend Tony (Bobby Soto), he manages to get a job as a janitor at the local Frito-Lay factory, with Judy having to help him with the application due to his limited reading and writing skills.
There he meets Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), an extremely proud ‘self-made’ engineer who keeps the factory machines running. Richard is interested in mechanics and wants to learn how everything works. After initially being suspicious, Clarence, basking in the attention, eventually makes Richard his protege and patiently explains how the products are made.
Richard has toiled at Frito-Lay for over a decade, never succeeding in securing a promotion from the factory’s egocentric manager (Matt Walsh). But he has a eureka moment when he discovers that Cheetos would appeal much more to him and his fellow Latinos with the addition of some chili spice. With his wife and kids as a focus group, he becomes a budding food scientist, experimenting with a wide variety of chili powders until he finds just the right mix that produces painful yet delicious heat.
Bringing his world-changing discovery to the attention of Frito-Lay CEO Roger Enrico (the ever-versatile Tony Shalhoub) is another problem. Inspired by a workplace motivational video featuring Enrico that his colleagues barely notice, Richard takes the bold step of calling the executive directly and pitching his idea. Intrigued, Enrico tells Richard to prepare a presentation, and despite his complete ignorance of marketing, Richard manages to sell him by testing the idea thanks to his unbridled enthusiasm which largely offsets his unpolished delivery.
The first test of the product is disappointing, consumers show no interest. But Richard enlists his friends and family to hand out free samples to the local Hispanic community, and the product quickly takes off. The rest, as they say, is history, with Richard rising to vice president at the company.
Working from two books written by Montañez, screenwriters Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chavez have clever fun with the story, infusing the feel-good story with plenty of lightheartedness and hilarious fantasy scenes. They also mine the story for rich emotions, especially with the tender relationship between Richard and his endlessly supportive wife, who will stop at nothing to help him achieve his dreams. The film’s long chronology and constantly shifting tones would present a challenge to any director, but Longoria, making her feature film debut, handles things skillfully, infusing the proceedings with a loving appreciation and authentic-feeling depiction of the Latino community in the core.
After seeing the movie, I diligently started doing some research and soon found that out Flaming hot maybe not quite the true story it claims to be. I promptly stopped digging further, not wanting to learn a troubling reality that might lower my appreciation. After all, as we learned from another great movie, print the legend when the legend becomes fact.