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Empathy comes from an unexpected place in Papi Chulo, a modest but disarming buddy movie in which a well-heeled white, gay Angeleno reaches across the socioeconomic divide to seek the comfort of companionship from a straight Mexican day laborer. Irish writer-director John Butler shows the same light touch with borderline sticky sentiment that made his 2016 feature Handsome Devil a minor-key charmer. But it’s the synergistic performances of Matt Bomer, playing raw and broken, and Alejandro Patino, conveying decency and nonjudgmental compassion behind his deadpan raised eyebrows, that make the movie click.
The strongest selling point will be Bomer’s heart-on-his-sleeve characterization as a genuinely sweet guy dealt a cruel blow by life, playing down his good looks with a nervous clumsiness that often veers amusingly close to slapstick. Whether that’s enough to get theatrical mileage is a big maybe, but there will definitely be an appreciative audience for this warm-hearted tale of emotional healing through an unlikely friendship.
Without hitting any larger agenda too bluntly, Butler’s screenplay also touches on class differences, ethnicity and the role of the Latino immigrant population as an intrinsic part of the fabric of American life, particularly in a sprawling multicultural city like L.A. That gives it timeliness in the current anti-immigration climate.
The movie opens with local cable weatherman Sean (Bomer) having an on-air meltdown during a live broadcast, the tears coming as he warns of the Santa Ana winds moving in to prolong the heatwave. While he tries to brush it off as acid reflux, his news producer boss Ash (an underused Wendi McLendon-Covey) tells Sean to take some time off, while his caring co-worker friend Suzie (D’Arcy Carden) urges him to talk to a therapist.
It emerges that Sean is still hurting from the end of a long relationship with his partner Carlos six months earlier, and the removal of a potted tree on the deck of his Eagle Rock home is like the final surgical step in a long and painful detachment process. But it exposes an unpainted section on the woodwork, which Sean wryly calls “the vicious circle.” He heads to the hardware store for paint, intending to handle what he thinks will be a small patchwork job himself, but soon discovers that the entire deck will need sanding and repainting.
From among a bunch of Latino day laborers who congregate near the hardware store each morning, Sean hires Ernesto (Patino). And given that his concerned friends keep telling him he needs more human contact, Sean flummoxes the happily married Mexican father of five by treating their service-based arrangement as an instant rapport among equals, despite them having only limited command of each other’s languages. Sean picks up Vietnamese takeout for them to share, takes Ernesto boating on Echo Park Lake (which he reluctantly agrees to only on condition that he row) and they go hiking in the hills.
Sean may be presumptuous in assuming he can buy a good listener for $20 an hour, but Ernesto goes along with his employer’s unorthodox demands on his time, mostly with a bemused shrug. His response to Sean’s odd behavior, expertly underplayed by Patino, fuels some of the movie’s funniest scenes, particularly when he updates his teasing wife Linda (Elena Campbell-Martinez) via cellphone calls that inevitably begin with, “Guess where I am.”
Breaking with the tired stereotype of Latino machismo, Ernesto twigs almost immediately that Sean is gay, and while he uses politically incorrect terms — in both Spanish and English — to discuss it, he’s by no means uptight or intolerant. He even accompanies Sean to a party packed with gay men, most of whom assume that the chubby middle-aged Mexican is Sean’s new flame. The fact that Ernesto looks like a more rough-edged version of Carlos perhaps feeds the misconception. Linda, meanwhile, thinks it’s hilarious that her husband might be in some kind of Pretty Woman deal.
When Sean misreads a signal the night of the party, Ernesto backs off, and the weatherman is once again left in uncomfortable isolation. He tries to return to work but is told he’s not ready, and his half-hearted attempt to find sexual distraction with a Grindr hookup (Ryan Guzman in a poignant scene) just reveals the sad extent of his ongoing fragility. Bomer plays this gnawing unhappiness with quiet pathos that cuts even deeper once Butler drops the veil on a major, unexpected plot reveal explaining what happened with Carlos.
In the climactic action that pushes Sean toward a messy catharsis, Bomer achieves a fine balance between comedy of awkwardness and genuine flailing desperation as his character crashes a family event at Ernesto’s home. Butler and his actors carve out lovely moments amid the chaotic situation, with both Patino and Campbell-Martinez conveying a lot by subtle means. The metaphor of rain finally arriving to break the long drought is a tad obvious, and the “one month later” coda a little tidy, but it’s hard to begrudge this tender and refreshingly unassuming film even its most conventional moments.
Production company: Treasure Entertainment, in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Bankside Films
Cast: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patino, Wendi McLendon-Covey, D’Arcy Carden, Ryan Guzman, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Brandon Kyle Goodman, Tommie Earl Jenkins
Director-screenwriter: John Butler
Producers: Rebecca O’Flanagan, Rob Walpole
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Jo Henriquez, Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher, Dearbhla Regan
Director of photography: Cathal Watters
Production designer: Susannah Honey
Costume designer: Joanna David
Music: John McPhillips
Editor: John O’Connor
Casting: Barbara McCarthy, Alice Merlin
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Bankside Films
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