Once again, Hollywood has given us the origin story of a pop culture sensation that somehow managed to shift the way consumers and corporations looked at the world. In most cases these types of shifts (The Social Network, Air, Tetris) are about filling a need or demand that nobody knew existed, but in the new film Flamin’ Hot, we learn that an entire growing section of consumers can be under-appreciated, and the first company to tap into that growth marketshare makes a whole lot of money.
Directed by Eva Longoria (best known as an actor), the film tells the true story of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), a Mexican-American living in California who went from petty criminal to gang-banger to husband and father, and needed to get into a safer line of work in order to provide for his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez) and two young kids. One of his close friends and neighbors helps him get a job as a janitor at Frito-Lay, where he works for many years with no real chance to move up in the company. Richard has a gift with machines, however, and his goal was to get promoted to a machine operator or maintenance worker. But it’s made clear from day one that the company’s segmentation is by design, and even talking to people outside of your immediate coworkers is frowned upon. That doesn’t stop Richard from befriending an engineer named Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), and Richard begins to learn the intricacies of the product lines for Doritos, Fritos, and Cheetos.
While he learns the machines on his own time, he’s also inspired by a corporate motivational video made by PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), who encourages all employees to “think like a CEO” and get inspired with ways to keep the company from losing money, which is exactly what happened in the 1980s. Layoffs were happening at the factory, and it seemed apparent that the factory was on the verge of shutting down entirely. Richard realizes that Latinos love Frito-Lay products, but only once they slather on hot sauce or salsa to give the snacks a little kick. Richard and Judy experiment with peppers and spices, and develop what is now one of the most popular snack flavors on the planet, “Flamin’ Hot,” which they first try out on Cheetos. After finding Enrico’s direct phone number, Richard jumps over several levels of management and pitches the flavor to Enrico, who seems moved by the janitor’s story and offers to meet with him to hear Richard’s formal pitch when he comes to inspect the plant in a couple weeks.
Flamin’ Hot isn’t just the story of a flavor invention. Richard has a lot of self-doubt to overcome, most of which stems from his father (Emilio Rivera) berating him his entire life, and pushing him to get a better job, perhaps even as a janitor at his church. But it’s Judy who keeps Richard stable and uplifted, even when it appears that the test run for the new Cheetos flavor isn’t selling. When he discovers that Frito-Lay hasn’t been marketing the flavor to the right communities, Richard takes to the streets with his former drug-dealing friends, and starts giving out the surplus bags for free—one per customer; the second bag you have to go to the store and buy—and before long, the Latino community was hooked and sales went through the roof.
As potentially inspirational as the Flamin’ Hot story could be (and it is a great story), the way Longoria and her team handle the material makes it feel sanitized and overly simplified, which I think denies Montañez’s story the drama and power it deserves. And there’s a by-the-numbers approach to any potential obstacle in his journey to the top. There’s a problem (such as a supervisor, played by Matt Walsh, who doesn’t want anyone at the plant to swerve out of their lane), then Richard and Judy figure out how to solve it. Rinse and repeat. It feels like the filmmakers are coloring inside the lines, which is exactly what Richard fought against.
With that said, it’s difficult not to be somewhat moved by this story of a man who literally created a billion-dollar flavor. There’s a humor to the proceedings that at least kept me engaged, and I loved the specificity of Richard’s journey being one of a proud Mexican-born man at a time when discrimination against Mexicans by police and society in general was rampant and overt. Garcia’s performance is serviceable; the story (as written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez) is predictable and somewhat lacking in drama. We know that the real Montañez is a raging success, so find something else about his story that makes for interesting storytelling (like Air did). Flamin’ Hot isn’t a complete bust, but much like Cool Ranch Doritos, it needs a little something extra to give it the necessary heat.
The film begins streaming on Hulu and Disney+ this Friday.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!