As a general rule, I tend to avoid spicy foods. But ever since I was young, I haven’t been able to resist grabbing a handful of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos whenever someone has a bag lying around. Although my stomach can’t quite handle the heat as I’ve gotten older, the inexplicable draw to that specific flavor profile has always made it the exception (strange, too, since I’ve never been a fan of regular Cheetos). And it’s why, for people who do love spicy foods, they’ve become absolute addicts of Frito-Lay’s convenient store curiosity-turned-flagship product ever since it debuted in the ‘90s.
Eva Longoria makes her directorial debut with Flamin’ Hot, a tale about Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), a poor family man from southern California who gets a job at the Frito-Lay factory as a janitor and, after a decade of career and financial stasis, musters the courage to cold call the brand’s CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) with an idea for a spicy new flavor for the Latino market.
Montañez, in real life, has spent the past 15 years telling his story of how he allegedly invented the popular snack and even wrote a memoir on which this film was based. However, before I go on, it’s important to note the credibility of his claims has been severely called into question, to the point where some believe that he never invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos at all. But we, as critics of art, must go based on the work in front of us, its relative truth, and its context within its medium. (Did people care this much about the ostensible truth behind Melvin and Howard?)
It helps that the movie focuses on Montañez himself and his own personal story, with or without the Frito-Lay corporation. Despite having two kids at home, he and his wife Judy – adorably played by Annie Gonzalez – struggle to make ends meet. Since Richard doesn’t have a high school diploma, a lot of businesses won’t hire him. His brief stints in jail don’t help either. That all changes when his cousin gets him his first real job at the factory.
From there, we learn about Richard and what kind of person he is: how hard he hustles, how important his faith is, and how much he loves and trusts his wife. Without becoming too nuanced, Flamin’ Hot takes the form of a quasi-character study. Longoria and writers Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick allow us to fall in love with our protagonist and his family long before his creative new idea is even a twinkle in his eye.
A big part of our affection comes from Garcia himself. The actor imbues as much charisma into Montañez as the character is ever intended to have. He’s so lovable that you’re just rooting for him to win, whatever that may entail.
And that’s the heart of the film! Not the pandering social commentary or heavy-handed racism (there are essentially no likable white people in the entire movie). Rather than getting some sort of point across, these themes really only serve as some sort of catharsis for their identifying audience members. They don’t benefit our protagonist whatsoever, nor do they influence our empathy for him. In fact, Flaming Hot would actually be more thought-provoking if the racist scenarios were dialed back and more subtle.
Longoria establishes a fresh and snappy tone that may never match up with these more serious moments presented early on, but still appeals to us by prioritizing her characters’ genuine human responses over cinematic cliches. Her freshman outing is filled with confident ideas as she exhibits a firm grip on the narrative. Luckily, she doubles down on the humor with some clever hypotheticals and a good dose of irony. It also doesn’t hurt to have a great cast.
The best moments in the film are the authentic reactions by those around Richard when he finally succeeds. Inspiring, funny, and sweet, Flamin’ Hot is less about how a man invented one of the most popular snack foods in the country than it is about the journey he gets to take with the people who helped him get there – and sharing that success with them.