‘Flamin’ Hot’

Matt Walsh and Jesse Garcia in FLAMIN HOT. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Everybody loves an underdog story. A hero facing the odds stacked against them somehow snatches victory from the jaws of defeat? "Rocky" might come to mind (or, technically, "Rocky II"). Entire categories of sports movies follow that pattern. So why not a film about one of the most popular snacks on the market?

"Flamin' Hot" is a bio-pic about a longtime marketing director for Frito-Lay named Richard Montañez. It's based on his memoir: "A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive." Montañez claims to have invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos, one of the most popular snacks on the market. And the film doesn't dispute the claim.

It begins with Richard as a boy in a California migrant labor camp. The film doesn't hide its depictions of the abuse he received from bigoted individuals all too eager to disparage the protagonist because of his Mexican heritage. While in school facing bullies, Richard meets a Hispanic girl named Judy. And the two decide to stick together.

"Flamin' Hot" flashes forward, showing Richard as a young adult played by Jesse Garcia and Judy played by Annie Gonzalez. They sell drugs, run with a rough crew, and Richard's world changes when he gets Judy pregnant and is arrested in a stolen vehicle. The judge decides Richard can do better, and Judy tells him they need to change their lives because of a baby on the way.

With another time jump, Richard and Judy are living in a house with a broken refrigerator and two sons. Money is tight, and Richard can't seem to get a job. On top of everything, they still have to deal with racists calling them names and denying them opportunities.

Eventually, Richard lands a job as a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant in Southern California. At first, he's excited to finally have a paying job. And he's eager to prove himself, making friends with an engineer at the plant named Clarence C. Baker (Dennis Haysbert).

Richard resolves to improve himself and become a machinist, but after eight years, he's still stuck as a janitor. And the plant starts laying people off because of a worsening economy in the '80s.

To make matters worse, Richard is constantly facing pressure from his father who physically abused him as a child and emotionally abuses him as an adult.

Despite this, Judy refuses to give up on him. She is his constant voice of support, and when Richard realizes Frito-Lay could benefit from selling a spicy-flavored chip and tapping into the Hispanic market, she jumps right in to support him and help him invent the perfect flavor.

There's just one problem. Nobody at the plant will listen to his pitch for a spicy snack. So ... motivated by a video from the company president, Richard makes a desperate phone call to PepsiCo Chief Executive Officer Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub). He pitches the idea and offers to send the CEO samples of his homemade spicy Cheetos.

It's here Richard has to succeed because the plant is in danger of being closed down after several rounds of layoffs.

"Flamin' Hot" packs a surprising amount of emotion for a movie about Cheetos. Garcia is a force to be reckoned with through the emotional highs and lows of this character's arc. But it's Gonzalez who steals the show. She can bring a tear to the eyes of anyone in the audience through her steadfast faith, both in a higher power who can grant mercy to this struggling family and her husband, whom the world appears so eager to brush aside at every opportunity.

When he's at home, Richard is driven by his wife. And when he's in the plant, Richard is driven by the powerful support of his friend Clarence. Together, they help drive this main character into an underdog story most audiences should devour ... like a bowl of Cheetos.

This is a film that manages to accomplish a lot in 99 minutes. "Flamin' Hot" doesn't waste any of its time, and director Eva Longoria delivers all of Richard's obstacles at a steadfast and efficient pace.

"Flamin' Hot" has so many flavors in its seasoning, from faith, family and emotional trauma to betting everything and believing in one's self. And it does all this without apologizing once for the story's front-and-center Hispanic culture, without which, the narrative wouldn't have even been possible.

Of course, reality complicates the story audiences see in "Flamin' Hot." Because while the real-life Montañez claims to have invented this incredibly popular snack, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times challenges that narrative. Here's a snippet from the paper's findings:

"Montañez didn't invent Flamin' Hot Cheetos, according to interviews with more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, the archival record and Frito-Lay itself ... . Flamin' Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay's headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand -- she came up with the Flamin' Hot name and shepherded the line into existence."

But "Flamin' Hot" is a movie, and films based on real people and events rarely stick to exactly what happened. Audiences watch films for dramatized scenes and stories that inspire them, and characters that make them feel all kinds of emotions. And reality so often gets in the way of those objectives.

Nobody watches "Titanic" for a historical re-enactment of how the ship sank. They watch the film because James Cameron crafted one hell of a story with fictional characters that could realistically be believed to have existed aboard the tragic vessel. And it was the same with "Tetris," which came out just a few months ago.

When judged solely on the merits of craft and fiction, "Flamin' Hot" is all that and a bag of chips.

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