Even if you don’t like your snack foods all that spicy, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are pretty damn tasty. And like them, Eva Longoria’s directorial debut Flamin’ Hot is an easily snackable treat, although not a totally fulfilling one. The origin story of the Frito Lay favorite by Mexican laborer Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) is…well, let’s say it’s up for debate. But the film works better when taking a broader view of his rags to riches story, and how access to the American Dream isn’t necessarily equal, that hard work doesn’t always equate to success especially in the corporate world, and how one brand of hot pepper makes a better Flamin’ Hot Cheeto than another.
Montañez’s accomplishments may have been embellished, but they still make for a crowd-pleasing underdog story. Even as a young Mexican boy, Richard’s gift for salesmanship was evident, turning racist bullies into customers by introducing to the burritos his mother would make for lunch. Years later as an adult with his ride-or-die wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez), Richard struggles to make ends meet with no diploma, little work experience, and a criminal background. It isn’t until he convinces a former drug dealer pal to get him into the door at Frito Lay, finding work as a janitor, that Richard’s life starts to turn around.
Dennis Haysbert stars as Clarence C. Baker, a respected Frito Lay engineer who, like Richard, had to claw his way up within the company while facing blatant discrimination. Clarence agrees to take Richard under his wing, teaching him on the job about more than just fixing the corn chip distributor. Times are hard for everyone. The film shows how Reagan’s drastic cuts in the ’80s disproportionately affected poor families and people of color. By the ’90s, the economic downturn left in its wake has Frito Lay on the verge of collapse. Drastic layoffs have impacted everyone, including Richard’s family and friends. His job is on the line, too.
You know whose jobs aren’t on the line? The rich Frito Lay execs who do none of the work but reap all of the benefits. Flamin’ Hot wears its politics on its sleeve. None of this meant to be particularly nuanced, but it is definitely relatable. Those same corporate big-wigs try to drive home the idea that Richard’s culture, his way of life, have no value. So it’s refreshing to see Richard and his family come together on his dream, using household Mexican spices to create a new flavor of Cheetoh that appeals to their community. Everyone gets in on it, with Judy helping on the business side and their children testing out the various levels of heat to find the “good spicy”. Richard has to overcome feelings of worthlessness, instilled in him at an early age by his abusive father who has now “found God” and pretends the past didn’t happen. The personal hurdles that Richard had to overcome are what make his story feel grounded.
Longoria’s long career in television is evident in Flamin’ Hot‘s construction, with the narrative feeling very commercial-ready and slight, with Richard’s plucky voiceover guiding us from vignette to vignette. You don’t get the impression that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were some great achievement, however, despite the screenplay’s attempts to make this feel like a cultural milestone. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen so many movies lately about the weird ‘n wild origins of major products, such as in the movies Air, Blackberry, and Tetris. By comparison, Flamin’ Hot doesn’t really measure up.
Frito Lay has disputed Richard Montañez’s claim to having invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Perhaps bracing for the inevitable backlash, the screenplay acknowledges that a similar product was already in development by the time Richard started pitching it to the company, although it does so by proposing that only Richard’s specific cultural background could’ve made such a thing successful. Perhaps that’s correct. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter how truthful the movie is about who invented a spicy snack food. Richard’s commitment to family, his hard work and belief in himself, pulling himself up from nothing to the heights of the corporate world and doing it by staying true to his heritage, are all the flavor that Flamin’ Hot needs to be worthwhile viewing, even if it’ll leave you hungry for something more substantial.
Flamin’ Hot debuts on Hulu and Disney+ on June 9th.