Longoria directs a film about Richard Montañez, the Mexican American janitor who claims to have invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
Listen, I love a delicious salty snack as much as the next guy. And if you promise not to tell my cardiologist, I’ll even admit to having scarfed down my share of Cheetos. But a feature film about the guy who claims to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? That seems a bit of a stretch. I mean, when I was eating them, I never once thought that 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 Flamin’ Hot, receiving its world premiere at SXSW before streaming in June on Hulu, turns out to be an utterly delightful rags-to-riches story that should appeal to anyone in need of uplifting. Superbly directed by Eva Longoria, this equally amusing and affecting film defies expectations as much as its main character.
That would be the Mexican American Richard Montañez, terrifically played by Jesse Garcia (Quinceañera), who narrates his story, beginning with how as a young boy he sold his mother’s burritos to his fellow elementary school students, introducing them to the joys of Mexican food. His falls in with gangs in his teen years, committing petty crimes, until he goes straight after his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez, endearing) becomes pregnant for the first time. Through the help of his best friend Tony (Bobby Soto), he manages to get a job as a janitor at the local Frito-Lay plant, with Judy having to help him with the application because of his limited reading and writing skills.
There, he meets Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), an extremely proud “self-made” engineer who keeps the factory machinery humming. Richard takes an interest in the mechanics, wanting to learn how everything works. After initially being suspicious, Clarence, basking in the attention, ultimately makes Richard his protégé, patiently explaining how the products are made.
Richard toils away at Frito-Lay for more than a decade, never managing to snag a promotion from the factory’s self-absorbed manager (Matt Walsh). But he has a eureka moment when he discovers that Cheetos would appeal a lot more to him and his fellow Latinos with the addition of some chili seasoning. Using 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 mixture that will produce painful but 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 motivational workplace video featuring Enrico that his fellow workers barely take notice of, 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 on testing the idea thanks to his unbridled enthusiasm that goes a long way toward compensating for his unpolished delivery.
The first test of the product falls flat, with consumers showing no interest. But Richard enlists his friends and family to give out free samples to the local Hispanic community, and the product soon takes off like wildfire. The rest, as they say, is history, with Richard rising to be a vice president at the company.
Screenwriters Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chavez, working from two books written by Montañez, smartly have fun with the story, infusing the feel-good tale with plenty of lightheartedness and hilarious fantasy sequences. They mine the tale for rich emotion as well, especially with the tender relationship between Richard and his endlessly supportive wife, who will stop at nothing to help him realize his dreams. The film’s lengthy chronology and constantly shifting tones would be challenging for any director, but Longoria, making her feature debut, handles things expertly, infusing the proceedings with a loving appreciation and authentic-feeling depiction of the Latino community at its core.
After seeing the film, I diligently began to do some research, quickly discovering that Flamin’ Hot may not quite be the true story it purports to be. I promptly stopped digging any further, not wanting to learn any troublesome reality that could diminish my appreciation. After all, as we learned from another terrific movie, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.