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Flamin’ Hot review: Eva Longoria directs the Cheetos origin story no one needed (but which still charms)

The feature debut from the ‘Desperate Housewives’ star is a presentation on 20th century Mexican-American history one moment, an uber-capitalist feel-good tale the next

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 08 June 2023 15:17 BST
Flamin' Hot

Weeks before the cameras started to roll on Flamin’ Hot, Eva Longoria’s first narrative feature as a director, an exposé by the LA Times claimed that its subject, Richard Montañez, had falsely taken credit for the invention of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. This was no spurious dispute – the spicy corn puff is the stuff of snack legend, a global phenomenon that’s spawned its own fashion and makeup lines. And Montañez had used its creation as the triumphant climax of his memoir, A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie, which chronicles his rise from Frito-Lay janitor to the company’s vice president of multicultural sales and community promotions.

Frito-Lay told the Times that Montañez “was not involved in any capacity in the test market”, only to then double back and tell NPR that he was undoubtedly “a part of” the overall creation process. Montañez’s story was readily embraced precisely because it served as a step-by-step manifestation of the American dream. Flamin’ Hot, then, honours that (potential mis)truth. Its sturdy, conventional approach either makes for persuasive fiction or streamlined reality – take your pick.

Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez’s script races through Montañez’s biography: his childhood in a California labour camp, the violence he experienced at the hands of his father, the slurs hurled at him by white kids in the playground, the mistreatment by local police. There’s a deliberate lightness of touch here, a reassurance that these barriers will be overcome. And for Montañez, played by Jesse Garcia, victory comes in the form of nourishment. He convinces the bullies to try his mother’s burritos and then sells them in bulk. He recognises the neglected potential of Frito-Lay’s Latino consumer base and convinces them to develop a spicy alternative, based on the chilli mixes sprinkled over Mexican street corn.

Longoria, whose lengthy tenure on Desperate Housewives surely offered her a front row seat to the public’s tastes, has sized up exactly what sort of film Flamin’ Hot needs to be. It weaves between tones, so as to keep its audience on their toes – in one moment it’s an Adam McKay-style multimedia presentation on 20th-century Mexican-American history, in another it’s a teen comedy’s breakdown of cafeteria politics. In yet another, it’s a parody of classic, black-and-white sitcoms.

There’s also an effective division between the ice-cold sterility of the executive office and the warmth of Montañez’s home life. Garcia and Annie Gonzalez, as Montañez’s wife Judy, have a playful, affectionate chemistry that avoids any of the usual pitfalls of stories of male invention – though it’s ultimately Richard’s idea, Judy is an active force in its realisation.

The most effective scenes in Flamin’ Hot prod gently at how disharmonious the relationship between the man on the floor and the man in the boardroom can be. Frito-Lay will happily exploit the time and labour of its Latino workforce, and take money from its Latino customers, yet baulk at the idea of actually investing in them as people. But to pick at that scab any more would be to admit that Montañez’s story, and that of the American dream, isn’t quite as feel-good as we’ve been promised.

Ultimately, the corporate suits are convinced, the factory workers thrive, and Montañez is awarded his own office. Every chain in this capitalistic link is allowed to be the hero: Montañez, his closest ally Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), a Black engineer always sidelined in favour of his white colleagues, and Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), the CEO who first deigns to listen to Montañez’s pitch. Whether or not the story of Flamin’ Hot is true doesn’t really matter – either way, Frito-Lay still wins.

Dir: Eva Longoria. Starring: Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub. 12, 99 minutes.

‘Flamin’ Hot’ streams on Disney+ in the UK and Hulu in the US from 9 June

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