2023 has been a year for the biopic. No, not about famous celebrities or prominent figures in history, though people are still involved. The biopics I’m talking about involve products, things we consume on a daily basis, some more materialistically than others. There has been the story of the Air Jordan, the popular game Tetris, one of the first ever smartphones in Blackberry and now food. Specifically, a craze that has gone on to expand into a worldwide phenomenon that goes beyond food and every day snacks starting with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. All of these products have revolutionized everyday life and without their contributions and the people behind them, the world would be a much different place.
Unlike the former, Flamin’ Hot has a difference to its template. Though similar in design, structure and tropes, the film written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez doesn’t feature an antagonist. There’s no rival shoe company like Converse or Adidas competing for an athlete’s signature nor is there the entire Soviet Union to battle against the rights of intellectual property. But if there is a villain or antagonist to this charming ultimate underdog story, it’s the prejudice and discrimination against marginalized groups. But for our hero’s sake, that’s only fuel added to the fire to prove those people wrong.
Based on the novel A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive written by Richard Montañez, the film also serves as Eva Longoria’s feature directorial debut. As you can suspect, the story follows Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) struggling to make ends meet with his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez) and their two boys in 1980’s southern California. Narrated by Montañez as an unreliable narrator, not as unreliable as Fight Club, Richard has endured a tough life of drugs, gang and domestic violence. Until one day when he applies to Frito-Lay and convinces his way into a job as a janitor in one of the factories.
Taking place over several years, most of them tough, Richard and Judy are not immune to the changing political and economic troubles the country is facing. But somehow, out of all the downsizing, Richard never loses his job fully at Frito-Lay. Maybe it’s due to being taken under the wing of maintenance engineer Clarence C. Baker (Dennis Haysbert) where Richard becomes a sponge for information and Clearance’s shadow on the factory floor or maybe it’s due to the determination, motivation and drive Richard starts each and every day with.
From hours before and after his shift, Richard is at the factory learning from Clarence to be a better provider for his family. As the saying goes tough times don’t last, tough people do and Richard makes the most out of his entrepreneurial spirit, something that could potentially save Frito-Lay from more downward spirals amidst the Regan administration. Without the drive to achieve something, the world would cease to exist. One day Richard has an epiphany to add a little spice to the boring snacks that Frito-Lay ships outs.
And thus, the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are born – after several trial and error runs of course.
The story of an underdog is something we can all relate to. At one point, no one believes we can achieve our goals but with the right headspace and support from the people closest to us, anything is possible. Richard has Judy every step of the way to push him forward when the rest of the world including his father Vacho (Emilio Rivera) tells him he’s worthless and an unfit provider. Maybe that’s the antagonist to this story, pessimism. Additional to Judy, motivation comes from an unexpected source – CEO of PepsiCo Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub).
While Flamin’ Hot doesn’t reinvent the biopic wheel, it also avoids some of the usual tropes that follow the nothings to somethings. For example Richard and Judy are a team – he doesn’t kick her to the curb or have countless affairs on the side. They support each other and when times get tough they breathe and figure out the next move. Another example Flamin’ Hot has going for it is the hard work ethic Richard wakes up with each day. There are no cut corners, no right place at the right time. Richard works hard for everything he achieves and takes the responsibility for his failures. Luck gets you there, but talent keeps you there. Richard Is the epitome of that saying – he may have gotten lucky, unlocking the key marketing secret but his talent for identifying what aspects can be improved to everyday snacks made him what he is.
Some events may be exaggerated because Richard as a narrator is unreliable, but these moments provide the humor to this story. Genuine humor that heightens how a board meeting is thought to go only to follow with how the meeting actually plays out. Members of executive teams aren’t strangling one another with telephone lines or holding fireplace pokers against another’s cheek brandishing switchblades and speaking in slang. At one point, Richard apologies for going too “hood” during his big presentation for his hot Cheetos.
Above all else Flamin’ Hot provides a charming story of inspiration for anyone looking to indulge in its non nutritional valued snack star. Overcoming one’s circumstances becomes the centerpiece for Richard’s drive to become greater than what he’s meant to be. Led by the charismatic Jesse Garcia who exudes a cool ranch everyman vibe, Flamin’ Hot provides just enough spice and flavor that doesn’t require a sip of water to cool the tongue off. There’s enough substance to keep anyone satisfied who may look for a new favorite snack to obsess over.
Of late, the biopic has been trending upward in value with no real sign of slowing down – yes they will all feature the same structure to how the narrative plays out but the pitfall of idolizing larger than life athletes, musicians and historical figures has taken a back seat. The little guy who does all the hard work and in a thankless job gets all the credit they deserve. Richard is truly larger than life and his story is remarkable. For Longoria, her feature debut is a solid start full of style, some empty calories and heart that champions the unsung hero.
Screenplay By: Lewis Colick & Linda Yvette Chávez
Directed By: Eva Longoria
Music By: Marcelo Zarvos
Cinematography: Federico Cantini
Starring: Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Emilio Martinez, Dennis Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub
Where to Watch: Hulu
Edited By: Liza D. Espinas & Kayla Emter
Release Date: June 9, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 39 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 68%
Based On: A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive by Richard Montañez