Directed by Eva Longoria, making her feature film debut after directing television for several years, “Flamin’ Hot” tells the disputed-by-some story of real-life figure Richard Montanez (Jesse Garcia, “Quinceanera”), a doting husband and father and uneducated maintenance worker (i.e., janitor) at Frito-Lay, who has a dream of a creating a spicy line of of Latino-aimed products. When we first meet Richard, he has very little going for him outside of his kids and his loving, supportive and hard-working wife Judy (the remarkable Annie Gonzalez). By a stroke of luck, Richard, who was raised in a migrant camp, lands a full-time job at Frito-Lay, which is part of the empire of PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shaloub). On the Frito-Lay factory floor, Richard meets self-made engineer Clarence C. Baker (a worth-his-weight-in-gold Dennis Haysbert). Because his own father belittled him all his life, Richard has scant faith in himself, although Judy has striven to build his confidence up. Clarence becomes Richard’s surrogate father, teaching him how to keep the machines in the factory running and how to repair them when they don’t. Richard notices that Latino people pour hot sauce on all the Frito-Lay products they eat. Why not put the hot stuff on the products when you make them and market them to Latino consumers?
That, folks, is the simple, feel-good premise of “Flamin’ Hot,” a very appealing, if also modest tale of a man who despite a cruel, damaging father finds himself and his sense of worth with the help of his wife, children and new friend Clarence, whose name recalls the guardian angel in the iconic family classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Longoria did most of her work by brilliantly casting of the film.
As Richard, Garcia is not immediately likable in part because he is at first involved with a drug-dealing gang. Fate deals Richard a bad hand until he meets Judy. His wife and his children are the reason he wants to turn his life around in spite of lacking even a high school degree. Garcia challenges us to find what is good in the film’s working-class, immigrant hero, and the filmmakers are smart enough to see the answer. They make us want to see past his lack of confidence and obvious shortcomings.
As Richard’s father, Emilio Rivera (FX’s “Mayans M.C.”) invites us to dislike him. According to the screenwriters, Reagan’s “trickle down theory” makes life difficult for the Latino working-class in the 1980s. Shifts are cut. Full-time workers become part-time. Sales are down, and the plant itself might be shut down. White overseer Lonny (an always welcome Matt Walsh) rides Richard hard. But Richard builds up the nerve to call Enrico’s office on the phone to pitch his idea. Can Richard and his spicy snacks idea save the plant? Are you kidding?
That is the story the film was made to tell, although some sources suggest “Flamin’ Hot” is mostly fiction. Inspired in art by Montanez’s 2013 autobiography “A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive,” screenwriters Louis Colick (“Ladder 49”) and Linda Yvette Chavez (Netflix’s “Gentefied”) have fashioned a classic and also uniquely Latino rags-to-riches fable, an American success story we can all relate to. Longoria, who has directed episodes of “Devious Maids,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Black-ish” displays a deft hand at getting the best from her talented cast. Director Martin Ritt (“Hud,” “Norma Rae”) once said “Directing is casting.” Longoria heard that.
(“Flamin’ Hot” contains profanity and brief drug references)
Rated PG-13. On Hulu and Disney+