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‘Flamin’ Hot’ review: Humdrum movie puffs up a dubious Cheetos success story

Jan 05, 2024

Jesse Garcia plays Richard Montañez, who joined Frito-Lay as a plant janitor and rose through the ranks, in "Flamin’ Hot."

Searchlight Pictures

One of the most quoted movie lines of the 21st century comes from "The Social Network," when Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg says to his opponents in a civil suit, "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook."

Eva Longoria's "Flamin’ Hot" is a well-made but overly conventional and borderline corny (pardon the pun) biopic chronicling the rags-to-riches tale of one Richard Montañez, a maintenance worker at Frito-Lay who invented the globally popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, forever changing the snack-food game.

But here's the thing: If Montañez was the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, he’d have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Eva Longoria and written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, based on a book by Richard Montañez. Running time: 129 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language and brief drug material). Available Friday on Hulu and Disney+.

By all credible accounts, he didn't. Montañez wrote two books about his experiences and became an in-demand motivational speaker, but as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2021, an internal investigation by Frito-Lay revealed that while Montañez’ rise through the ranks of the company is admirable, and parent company PepsiCo has applauded his fine career, he had little or no involvement in the actual creation of the Flamin’ Hot product line.

Hoo man. We all know that virtually every biopic ever made — including "The Social Network" — exercises poetic license and often takes great liberties with the truth, from composite characters to compressed timelines to imagined conversations, but it's rare that the entire basis of an "inspired by a true story" film seems to carry less weight than a layer of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos dust on your fingers.

Lea este artículo en español en La Voz Chicago.

Even if we get past that substantial elephant lolling about the room, "Flamin’ Hot," like its subject material, offers up some moments of instant satisfaction, but is mostly empty calories, with the lead character (played with considerable charm by Jesse Garcia) serving up lines such as, "Someone's gonna say yes today. I got this." (I feel like people say, "I got this," or, "You got this," far more often in movies, on TV shows and in commercials than they do in real life.)

Based on Montañez’ book "A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive," with a screenplay by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, "Flamin’ Hot" often feels like a standard made-for-TV biopic, though director Longoria adds a few fun visual flourishes from time to time, e.g., a sequence that notes the passing of nearly a decade with some nifty graphics as we pan around a warehouse.

After an extended prologue in which we see the young Richard getting bullied while growing up in a migrant labor camp in Guasti, California, and then taking up petty crime as a young man ("When the world treats you like a criminal, you become one," he says), he vows to his pregnant wife, Judy (a wonderful Annie Gonzalez), that he will find a legitimate job, despite having little education. He eventually gets hired as a janitor at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, where he endures the insults and dismissive attitude of the frazzled plant manager (Matt Walsh). while seeking the tutelage of Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), a "self-made" engineer who is something of a legend on the floor. (The warehouse set is impressive and expansive.)

Richard has his light-bulb moment when he realizes the Frito-Lay snack line of chips would have a lot more appeal in the Latino community if you added some chili seasoning, maybe more than a little chili seasoning. He enlists the help of his wife and kids as a focus group, manages to get the attention of company CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) with his pitch, and even recruits some friendly local gangbangers to help distribute bags of chips throughout the community. Every once in a while, Richard acknowledges in voice-over that what we’re seeing onscreen isn't exactly how things went down — but he's referring to relatively minor details. "Flamin’ Hot" never introduces any doubt that it was Richard Montañez who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, with a little help from his friends and family.

Not that Frito-Lay or parent company PepsiCo come off badly in this cheery tale. To be sure, the plant manager is a jackass, and there's a subplot about the unrest that occurs when management lays off a substantial portion of the workforce when times get tough — but the product placement in this movie is relentless and is the very fabric of this movie. There's no mention of how these snacks don't exactly hold the greatest nutritional value.

This is the year of the Cultural Phenomenon Product Origin Story, with "Air," "Tetris," "BlackBerry" and now "Flamin’ Hot." What's next, the story of GPS? Yoga Pants? TikTok? Tinder, Bumble and Hinge? Vaping? The known facts of Richard Montañez’ life and times are pretty remarkable. He really did rise from a hardscrabble upbringing to a job as a plant worker to eventually becoming vice-president of multicultural sales and community promotions. Still, even if Richard had been the sole inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, "Flamin’ Hot" lacks the zest to be memorable.