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'Flamin' Hot' review: Spicy snack, underwhelming story

Dec 31, 2023

The Frito Lay Cinematic Universe enters the chat with "Flamin' Hot," the generically inspirational tale of the supposed founder of the popular spicy snacks, which itself could use a little heat — not to mention a liberal sprinkling of the truth — in its storytelling.

"Flamin' Hot" gets so caught up in its own fairy tale and underdog mythmaking that it ceases to be believable. Forget the fact that the real life subject of the film, Richard Montañez (played by an upbeat, likeable Jesse Garcia), did not actually play a role in the creation of the nuclear red junk food. "Flamin' Hot" is so obviously manufactured in its execution that it comes off as a thinly veiled ad for the product (and its parent company, PepsiCo Inc.), and it represents the dark side of corporate origin story filmmaking, a genre which this year has already grazed the sneaker ("Air"), video game ("Tetris") and smart phone ("Blackberry") industries.

That's the hard-line take. A softer, more generous reading is that "Flamin' Hot" simply feels like an empty calorie TV movie.

Richard is a hard worker raised in Guasti, California, who turns to a life of gangbanging in his younger years. But he makes a decision to right himself for the benefit of his wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez), and the child they have on the way.

He picks up a job as a maintenance worker at the Frito Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, California, where he's treated like trash by his flustered jerk of a boss (Matt Walsh) but gravitates toward Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), a crafty, ambitious, "self-made" engineer.

Clarence teaches Richard the ropes, but there are few opportunities for growth at the company, especially amid a stifled economy in the 1980s. But Richard has an idea to appeal to the underserved Latino market, and he develops and tests a fiery alternative to the Frito Lay product line, coating products in a zesty spice that has a bit of a kick and leaves a lingering heat which "burns good," as Richard's young son puts it. And just like that, Flamin' Hot Cheetos are born. (Many other Flamin' Hot products follow in the line, even a Flamin' Hot Mountain Dew, which makes no sense but actually kind of works.)

Here's where things get tricky. Richard Montañez is definitely a real guy: he's the author of a memoir entitled "Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive" and a popular figure on the motivational speaker circuit, and it's no wonder why director Eva Longoria wanted to tell his tale. But his story truly is too good to be true, and Frito Lay told the L.A. Times in 2021 that "none of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin' Hot test market." Which is definitely not the story "Flamin' Hot" — which has Richard developing a personal relationship with PepsiCo's benevolent CEO (played by Tony Shalhoub) — tells.

OK, so biopics cut corners all the time, even though this is a little more than corner cutting. (More like corner chopping, or hacking.) The problem is "Flamin' Hot" doesn't even feel real, and is so concerned with telling a feel-good, rags-to-riches story that it loses its credibility and any sense of relatability along the way, thereby undercutting the value of the story it's trying to tell.

Reach for the stars, don't take no for an answer, and maybe one day you'll reach them, and make a million dollars along the way. That's all well and good, and Longoria's story is a nice one. But it leaves you with little more than a thin layer of Cheeto dust on your fingers.

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Twitter: @grahamorama


Rated PG-13: for some strong language and brief drug material

Running time: 99 minutes

On Hulu