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‘Flamin’ Hot’: A snack food success story, seasoned with baloney

Mar 07, 2023

The poster image for "Flamin’ Hot" — a feel-good comedy/success story that purports to be the true tale of how Frito-Lay janitor Richard Montañez came up with the idea for a spicier version of the snack-food giant's products, marketed to Latino customers — features a play on Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" painting from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but with a bright red Cheeto in the outstretched hand of Jesse Garcia as Montañez.

It's a nod to the fact that this origin story, based on Montañez's memoir, "A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive," has a certain aura of myth around it, as if the precise details of its narrative require a leap of faith before they can be swallowed. (In 2021, as publicity for the film, directed by Eva Longoria, geared up, the Los Angeles Times wrote an exposé calling into question many of Montañez's claims about his role in the invention of Flamin’ Hot-branded snack foods.)

This review will not resolve any of that, except to say that the film, written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, does try to inoculate itself against accusations of stretching the truth, staging many scenes as the unreliable reminisces of its narrator, Richard, who after one particularly self-aggrandizing scene says, "Judy says I exaggerate this part" — referring to his wife (Annie Gonzalez) — before replaying the same scene in a manner probably a little bit closer to reality.

To say that the film is, well, cheesy, is no hyperbole. Although Garcia makes for a likable hero, the acting is broad, with the actor sporting a variety of obvious wigs. These help carry the 40-year-old Garcia from a troubled high school dropout in the 197os — in this telling, a gangbanger involved in drugs, guns and car theft — to a goody-goody blue-collar worker and family man with so much initiative (a word he could at one point neither define nor read) that he eventually proposed the idea for Cheetos made with a seasoning of hot peppers directly to PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico. Tony Shalhoub plays the godlike head of Frito-Lay's parent company as Richard's savior, falling so under the spell of his can-do employee, said here to be able to sell "water to a whale," that Roger drops everything to produce the new product.

A subplot involving Richard's abusive, alcoholic father (Emilio Rivera) gets stretched out to saccharine effect, with ample time left for the prerequisite scenes of redemption and forgiveness. It's a meal that may make you want to gag a little and reach for the nearest can of Pepsi to wash down the hoo-ha. There's so much product placement here, it gets in the way of all the unearned emotionalism.

It's not especially new to see a story about a guy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, even one this hyperbolic. One might say that "Flamin’ Hot" is just another serving of cinematic junk food: corn chips sprinkled liberally with the moviemaking equivalent of maltodextrin.

PG-13. Available on Hulu and Disney Plus. Contains some strong language and drug-related material. 129 minutes.