“Flamin’ Hot” Movie Review
Flamin' Hot Movie Review - DVDizzy
Flamin’ Hot sounds like a dream project in an age in which diversity and representation are paramount in both the stories being told and the people telling them in Hollywood. Here is a film from a female director and not some novice but seasoned actress, accomplished producer, veteran TV director, and Latinx icon Eva Longoria. And it tells the inspirational story of a Mexican American who rose the ranks at Frito Lay from janitor to big time executive. The fact that it gives us the history of one of the most famous and beloved brands within the world of snack foods would seem to make it an easy sell. The only problem is that the story presented in Flamin’ Hot is almost entirely fiction.
The tagline for this film, premiering simultaneously this Friday on Hulu and Disney+ is “The Flavor You Know. The Story You Don’t.” The word “true” is not included there, but it is heavily implied and also throughout the movie. After all, it is based on a memoir by Richard Montañez, a real person who books motivational corporate speaking engagements for $20,000 or more. Alas, two years ago, the Los Angeles Times thoroughly debunked Montañez’s claims that he invented the lucrative Flamin’ Hot Cheetos brand. The brand was introduced years before Montañez began working at Frito-Lay and the details of his inspiring rags-to-riches story of utilizing his culture to reshape the shelves of grocery stores, gas stations, and the like all have been proven false.
This is not some bombshell last-minute revelation. The movie was in the casting phase in May of 2021 when the Times story dropped and producers had already been alerted two years earlier by Frito-Lay of the many liberties taken in Montañez’s tale. The filmmakers chose to move forward with the project just as Montañez wrote and frequently, for a substantial fee, retold it. The publishers stood by Montañez’s account and even Frito-Lay was guarded in how they disputed what they called “an urban legend.” In a statement to the Times, they said, “We value Richard’s many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers, but we do not credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot products to him.”
Does any of this matter? No one expects complete factuality in any Hollywood movie “based on a true story.” Still, the inauthenticity that pervades Flamin’ Hot is troubling and undercuts the apparently abundant value this movie seems to wield at face value. Longoria, screenwriters Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, producer DeVon Franklin, and distributors the Walt Disney Company all knew that Montañez’s story was comprised largely of exaggerations and fabrications. And all of them decided to continue with the project anyway, knowing that the average viewer wasn’t going to research Frito-Lay’s history or care. They’re not wrong in that assumption, but the disregard their actions show their audience is most unfortunate.
The fairy tale presented as real sees Montañez warding off bullies and showing initiative from a young age, selling burritos his mother made for him in school cafeterias. His unusual cash flow supposedly gets him thrown into the back of a police car on prejudiced suspicions of theft. Before long, Montañez is grown up (played henceforth by Jesse Garcia) and dabbling in actual crime. A barely literate high school dropout, Richard cannot find legitimate work anywhere and he is tempted to sell drugs like many of his neighbors and peers. Instead, a friend recommends him for a janitorial position at Frito-Lay and with some résumé help and embellishment from his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez), Richard reluctantly gets hired on.
When he’s not cleaning the machines that make potato chips, Richard is often found asking many questions of Clarence C. Baker (Dennis Haysbert), a self-made engineer regarded as the best and hardest worker on the factory floor. Richard remains at Frito-Lay over a number of years, never really advancing in his career or bringing in enough for his family to know comfort and luxury. And yet, we are supposed to believe that one day at work he calls Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), the CEO of Frito-Lay, out of the blue to pitch a spicy seasoning he and his family have tested and perfected. Honoring his family’s roots, Richard looks to revolutionize the salty snack business and to acknowledge the market for the Hispanic community.
It’s feel-good storytelling and there’s at least a toe or two dipped in reality: Montañez actually did have a hand in pitching Flamin’ Hot Popcorn in 1994, five years after a team at Frito-Lay developed the Flamin’ Hot line with McCormick. Still, as presented here by Longoria and company, the legend rings utterly false. We get scenes of the Montañez family testing out mixtures of various peppers together at the dining room table and, when the line looks like it will fail and get scrapped, the local Latinx drug community comes together to spread the word. Not unlike Cheetos, this is one cheesy and artificial product.
The dubious nature of Montañez’s claims encourages me to perform a reckoning on one of my favorite Steven Spielberg movies, Catch Me If You Can. That 2002 cat and mouse tale was billed as “the true story of a real fake” and recent reporting has shown many of the claims of real life protagonist Frank Abagnale Jr. to be outright inventions. It feels somewhat hypocritical to not take similar issue with Abagnale’s apparent inauthenticity. But Catch Me If You Can was never meant to inspire and, factual or not, it makes for first-rate entertainment, benefitting from the master at the helm, his always-distinguished collaborators, and the stellar cast led by some of the greatest talents of two generations in Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.
Flamin’ Hot, on the other hand, exists largely to inspire and to celebrate the man who against all odds rose from janitor to big-time businessman on grit, determination, and good ole’ Christian family values. Although my screening was in a theater, this is undoubtedly a television movie, one that will be submitted for consideration at the Emmys, not the Oscars. And setting aside the authenticity, it is extremely watchable, feel-good entertainment, as evidenced by the high spirits of those in attendance (even before free bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were, inevitably, handed out upon exiting). But it’s upsetting to see fiction passed off as fact. Part of me wishes someone was there to hand out reprints of the L.A. Times expose as well, or at least a QR code linking to the online version. Is there such a shortage of actual heroes that we’re left to celebrate a wealthy charlatan whose reputation is inextricably linked to a product so devoid of nutritional value that many schools have banned it?
Making her feature directing debut after more than a decade at the helm of episodes of TV series like “Black-ish”, “Jane the Virgin”, and “The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia”, Longoria has given us something that looks reasonably cinematic but feels disingenuous and manufactured. The performances are cartoonish, none more than the admittedly charismatic Garcia, whose overused “white guys lip-synched to Latin guy’s flavorful narration” device is borrowed directly from the first two Ant-Man movies (and multiple seasons of “Drunk History” before that). Perhaps the biggest and most surprising technical shortcoming of the movie is the amateurish work of the hair and make-up department, emphasis on the former. Haysbert, Shalhoub, and Matt Walsh (playing a factory floor supervisor) all sport some of the worst-looking hairpieces you’ll encounter in 21st century entertainment.