It’s cheeky to call a movie about Cheetos “cheesy,” but that’s the best way to describe “Flamin’ Hot.” Directed by actor Eva Longoria in her narrative feature debut, this light-hearted comedy is a fictionalized version of the invention of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. The real-story is rife with urban legends and factual disputes; with its occasionally unreliable protagonist-narrator, the screenplay by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez lets you know it plans to adhere to that John Ford adage about printing the legend.
The film airs on Hulu and Disney+ this Friday.
“Flamin’ Hot” isn’t just the story of the spicy snack beloved by stoners, kids, and anyone else who craves a moderate burn on the tongue; set in California, it’s also the story of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), a Frito-Lay factory janitor who pitched the idea of spicy seasonings to company CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub). It traffics in some biopic tropes: the reformed alcoholic father character, Vacho here (Emilio Rivera), who thinks his son is worthless; and the notion that creating something new is as easy as making an observation (in this case, Richard gets his idea by noticing there are no super-spicy products on the snack shelves).
This film plays more like a working-class fable, the kind where a likable schlub achieves success through grit and determination. As a result, “Flamin’ Hot” hews closer to Mike Nichols’s 1988 classic “Working Girl” than Jake Kasdan’s 2007 brutal biopic parody “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”
Longoria adds a Mexican-American lens, steeping her story in the culture, language, and dreams of Montañez, his friends and family, and the partner he has loved since childhood, Judy (Annie Gonzalez). The dialogue is peppered with Spanish phrases and slang, and the film’s forays into fantasy take funny swipes at stereotypical cinematic portrayals of Mexican Americans: Montañez’s re-enactments of perceived business meetings at Frito-Lay play like parodies of movies like 1992′s Mexican-American prison drama, “American Me.”
The movie briefly touches on the racism faced by Mexican-American kids in mostly white schools and the ruthless policies Ronald Reagan inflicted on the poor during his presidency. “Flamin’ Hot” is more inclined to be a crowdpleaser, so any darkness is mostly kept at bay. We know Montañez will succeed since we see him in the opening scene dining out at a fancy restaurant. The outcome is never in doubt.
The director has called this a love story more than anything else, and the chemistry between Gonzalez and Garcia delivers. Their relationship has the predictable dynamic found in this type of movie (he’s a dopey dreamer, she’s supportive and level-headed), but the actors are both very good in their roles, so we buy their romance.
Garcia, who is in practically every scene, is the film’s MVP. His narration is amusing enough to justify its existence. He looks like a regular dude, and he has an easy rapport with his fellow actors. The factory scenes team him up with Dennis Haysbert’s hard-nosed Clarence C. Baker, whose middle name, Charisma, describes what Haysbert brings to the role.
Baker has been passed over for promotions for the past 15 years, often losing the job to white men he trained. Like everything else that threatens to inject a harsher, believable reality into the story, “Flamin’ Hot” declines to interrogate Baker’s situation further. At least the film recognizes that such disparities exist.
Despite all its dramatic familiarity, “Flamin’ Hot” is a strange movie once you start thinking about it. Because we spend so much time in the factory watching machines spit out Fritos and Cheetos and Lays (I confess to being as hypnotized by the machinery as Montañez), and since Enrico is such a benevolent big boss, the movie often feels like a training video or an ad for Frito-Lay.
The marriage between its uplifting personal message and its embrace of big business is a rocky one, but Longoria and company hold the union together. They do this, in part, by acknowledging that a movie about the birth of a snack food sounds quite silly. “Flamin’ Hot” leans into that silliness, and I found myself doing the same. Besides, I’d rather watch a biopic that knows it’s goofy than the far too self-serious ones Hollywood consistently turns out.
And, yes, it did make me want to buy a snack that I should not be eating. Ah, capitalism!
Directed by Eva Longoria. Written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez. Starring Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub, Emilio Rivera. On Disney+ and Hulu. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 (medium-hot profanity, slurs)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.