Flamin’ Hot is based on the life of Richard Montañez, who claims he came up with the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — the film asserts he did this by infusing the very spices and ingredients he grew up eating as a Mexican American (Frito-Lay denies this claim). Directed by Eva Longoria from a screenplay by Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick, Flamin’ Hot isn’t the best biopic, but it is a delightfully charming one that leans into its big heart, and relishes in certain exaggerations. Anchored by a fabulous cast, Longoria spins an inspirational tale that is full of heart and humor, and takes a couple of risks in her directorial debut that elevate Flamin’ Hot’s general appeal.
Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) is a janitor with Frito-Lay where he learns much more than what his job allows, including how to service the machines that make the Cheetos. But after years and economic hardships that threaten to shut down the factory, Richard, with the help of his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez), comes up with the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. His biggest obstacle, however, is having the company take his idea, and him, seriously enough to effect change that would benefit not only Montañez, but his family and coworkers.
The film is funny, which is rare for a biopic. The screenwriters allow space for the film to breathe, to have a spark of life instead of being consistently dark or dramatic. That isn’t to say that Flamin’ Hot doesn’t deal with some darker elements of Montañez’s past, but that it isn’t hyper focused on them either. That’s for the best in a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, where the message is to never give up and always believe in oneself regardless of the people — in this case Montañez’s physically abusive father who turned to God later in life — that try to say it isn’t worth it and to hold back from one’s flourishing ideas.
Flamin’ Hot is meant as a feel-good comedy that highlights perseverance. As such, it holds back on exploring Montañez any deeper than it has to. It feels as though he is the poster child for the American Dream, which leaves his personal story aside from the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on the backburner and streamlines most of his life. That said, not all biopics have to start from scratch or detail every aspect of its subject’s life. Flamin’ Hot knows exactly the kind of story it’s trying to tell — an inspirational one, an underdog narrative that is as heartwarming as it is humorous despite Montañez’s hardships.
The film may be predictable at times, but it has a lot of charisma and buoyant energy that keeps it afloat. Jesse Garcia’s narration is breezy and fun, bringing the audience into Montañez’s life with a few story flourishes that make Flamin’ Hot a pure delight. In particular, scenes where Garcia’s narration is utilized to uplift what would have been an otherwise dull, stagnant conversation between Frito-Lay executives is where the film’s creativity truly shines. They turn something that might have been relatively dry in another biopic into comedy gold. It’s that sense of charm and humor that permeates through the film, giving it a storytelling boost.
Garcia imbues Montañez with a sense of ambition, but also a great love for his family and community. It’s apparent in every scene. Garcia and Gonzalez are excellent together, and though the latter doesn’t get as much as Garcia to work with, her tenacity shines through. Gonzalez is a powerhouse and she and Garcia are the core of Flamin’ Hot, their relationship a benefit to the story. Tony Shalhoub is consistently solid throughout as the head of Frito-Lay, and Dennis Haysbert lends a quiet strength to the film, though it’s Brice Gonzalez, as Richard and Judy’s young son, who is a scene stealer.
Flamin’ Hot is engaging from start to finish. Audiences will want to root for Montañez at every turn. This isn’t a man who is only concerned with himself and his dreams — Montañez gives back to those who supported him, who loved him and carried him through life and hard times. He is a family man first and foremost, and Flamin’ Hot makes sure that his family isn’t forgotten. The message here is that no one is capable of doing anything on their own, not without the help of friends, family, and community; it’s why Montañez wanting to get ahead is so meaningful — he’s not doing it for himself, but to uplift those around him as well.
Flamin’ Hot is not only entertaining, but feels like a warm hug. It’s sentimental enough, but doesn’t overstay its welcome. Longoria has ultimately crafted a sweet, funny, and bright movie that will surely have viewers looking up Montañez on Google after the film ends. Even if it doesn’t explore more of Montañez’s life and interiority, Flamin’ Hot is the kind of film that will warm the heart and make one laugh out loud. That, in and of itself, is a bold move in a genre that has leaned heavily on drama and trauma to deliver.
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Flamin’ Hot premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival on March 11. The film is 109 minutes long and rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug material. It will be available to stream on Hulu June 9.