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Flamin' Hot's Stale Corporate Propaganda 

click to enlarge All 38 counts coming down.

Flamin' Hot

All 38 counts coming down.

FLAMIN' HOT touts itself as a heartwarming tale of grit and pride, and a corrective to the injustices Latinos face in the U.S. (and Hollywood in particular), but it's a discouraging paean to a mythical American dream. The strength of its cast, its cultural celebrations, and its hollow promise of an examination of race in the world of corporate success are flavorless additions, and ultimately the movie leaves a bitter taste.

Flamin' Hot (Eva Longoria's directorial debut) tells the allegedly true story of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), who was born into a poor Mexican American family east of Los Angeles. Richard has moxie and big dreams, but an abusive father, poverty, prejudice and a lack of options drive him into drug dealing. When facing parenthood with his childhood sweetheart-turned-wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez), Richard goes straight. Finally, he gets a janitorial job at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, where he toils for a decade, longing for a promotion. By the end of the 1980s, Frito-Lay is reeling from a snack food war and threatens to close the plant. Inspired by the flavors of his youth, Richard dreams up a spicy seasoning to add to Frito-Lay's snack lines, and he and Judy work to concoct a recipe, packaging it in small batches to share with family and friends, and finally pitch to the company. He faces incredulity and disregard, still determined to save the company and his job by marketing his hand-crafted spicy snacks to Latinos. In an unbelievably lucky turn, Richard calls and gets through to PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), who, desperate to turn the company around, eagerly accepts a box of spicy Cheetos and travels to Rancho Cucamonga to hear Richard's sales pitch.

If it sounds implausible, it is. The Los Angeles Times largely debunked Montañez's story in 2021, supplying ample evidence that the Flamin' Hot line was developed by a team of Frito-Lay food scientists based on popular snacks in the midwest and East Coast, years before Montañez claims to have done so. Still, Montañez spun his tale into a lucrative career of corporate speaking events, an autobiography and now this film, on which he earned a writing credit.

I accept the necessity of artistic interpretation and don't expect Hollywood "true stories" to contain more than a kernel of truth, if that. But what was the point of this story? At a glance, Flamin' Hot is an inspiring underdog story but there are fatal flaws well beyond Montañez's embellishments. Montañez can't make Frito-Lay villainous — it's the vessel for his success. So the film feels like an extended commercial gilded with morality lessons on hard work, perseverance and being yourself. But Frito-Lay must also play the foil, staffed by white lab-coated scientists while Montañez and his wife visit Mexican markets, lovingly crafting the recipe in their home kitchen. There's no acknowledgment they are on the same team or that Montañez's recipe will be recreated and mass produced by these very soulless scientists.

Early on, the middle management team is portrayed as inept, self-serving naysayers, frustrated by corporate structure. But Montañez's reward is one of the very middle management positions derided.

And despite criticizing middle management and corporate red tape, Flamin' Hot never comes for the C-suite. The company's hardships are external, its threatened layoffs an unfortunate but unavoidable necessity. Enrico is portrayed warmly, the only person off the factory floor in touch with the little guy. And Montañez — both the character and real-life figure — is clearly in love with the Flamin' Hot and Frito-Lay brands. There is no room for examining the outsized role snack foods play in disadvantaged communities, the predatory capitalism of marketing cultural groups or the public health effects of PepsiCo products.

Worst of all, though, is the handling of the movie's central theme that hard work and perseverance pay off. On his path to success, Montañez works long hours off the clock to learn the inner workings of Frito-Lay. He puts his family and community to (unpaid) work developing, perfecting, marketing and distributing the Flamin' Hot recipe. He toes the corporate line, finding his deepest inspiration in a generic video that CEO Enrico distributes company-wide, encouraging workers to "act like owners." (Appropriately, middle management dismisses these videos as corporate nonsense, but Montañez knows better, they are literally his salvation.)

He does all this, ultimately, to save the PepsiCo corporation. Yes, the Rancho Cucamonga factory stays open; yes, he gets a raise and an office. But he and his factory floor buddies are still going to get crumbs for their labor and dedication to a multi-billion-dollar food conglomerate. It's one of those stories that the media thinks is inspiring and heartwarming, but, upon closer inspection, is depressing.

It's not hard to see why Montañez's story is so popular (and lucrative) on the corporate motivational speaking circuit. The message is clear: Work hard, often for free; climb over your coworkers and middle managers for scraps, but never question the leadership; give away your very best ideas and you might have a chance at a better position in the company.

Much has been made of Flamin' Hot's lean into Latinidad — the media junket has pushed it an example of the Latino experiences so often ignored by Hollywood. Indeed, the family gatherings, the neighborhood camaraderie and the factory floor solidarity are the most charming parts. There, the actors show off their charisma and comic timing, and make their characters feel genuine. The little details — the invisibility, the mispronunciation of a surname — will feel familiar to many. And there are some nice messages about cultural pride, but they also feel tacked on and disjointed. It feels bad to say so. Representation is important, and there is plenty of demand and space to tell Latinx stories well.

But, Flamin' hot is even less substantial than the snacks it's based on. It feels like corporate pap given a flavorless coating of cultural marketing. It's designed to appeal to certain tastebuds but there's little nutrition and little reason to return. PG13. 99M. HULU, DISNEY+.

Grant Scott-Goforth (he/him) gives all due respect to Flamin' Hot Cheetos but the Salsa Verde Doritos are the best — Richard, if you invented those, his hat is off to you.

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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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About The Author

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth

Bio:
Grant Scott-Goforth was an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal from 2013 to 2017.

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