Well-documented controversies over the accuracy of its story notwithstanding, Eva Longoria’s high-energy feature-directing debut Flamin’ Hot is a classic underdog story, a winning crowd-pleaser, and a brand deposit for Pepsico’s Frito-Lay division. The story of Richard Montañez, a General in the snack wars of the 1990s who rose through the ranks at PepsiCo from janitor to storied executive in charge of multicultural marketing, Flamin’ Hot “prints the myth” guided by a narrator who admits in passages he’s not always reliable.
Jesse Garcia stars as the charismatic Montañez, who grew up as one of ten siblings on a labor camp that he thought of as his own personal playground. Young Richard (Carlos S. Sanchez) eventually goes off to grade school where he becomes a burrito hustler, selling his mom’s cooking for a quarter each. He eventually accumulates enough change to take care of his childhood sweetheart Judy. An unjustified arrest as a minor alters the course of his life, leading to the discovery of the Chicano Movement for equality and liberty in the 1970s.
With limited prospects and a criminal record, Montañez applies to Frito-Lay with the assistance of his now-wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez). She works retail and cares for their two sons while Richard bounces from odd job to odd job. Upon landing an interview at Frito-Lay, he tells his manager he’s got a PhD: he’s poor, hungry, and determined. Once he gets his foot in the door he doesn’t take it for granted, seeking out a mentor in a talented machine operator Clarance Baker (Dennis Haysbert) to learn all facets of making the famous cheese puff, the Cheeto.
Sweeping the same factory floor through the ’80s and ’90s of market volatility, loss of share, layoffs, and consolidations, Richard finds himself inspired by group CEO Roger Enrico (brilliantly played by Tony Shalhoub) and encouraged to “think like a CEO,” leading to his lightbulb moment while eating Elote (spicy Mexican street corn) with his sons. As a family, they decide to experiment with various chilis to create a spicy coating to rival Cheetos’ Cool Ranch and capture the Latino market.
Dismissed by his direct boss (Matt Walsh) and the bureaucracy of regional management, he takes matters into his own hands and calls Enrico directly. The rest is not quite history: internal roadblocks get in the way, despite director sponsorship from the top of the org chart. Often Richard will explain the more complex business theories and tense corporate meetings as if they’re being handled on the streets.
While certain details are in doubt, the journey makes for an undoubtedly funny, breezy film about the entrepreneurial spirit with a witty script inspired by Montañez’s books and lectures. Longoria and screenwriters Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette execute an uplifting tale that never misses a beat even if we know where the story is going. Edited by Liza D. Espinas and Kayla Emter, Flamin’ Hot skillfully bounces between stations of Montañez’s life and what he thinks is going on behind closed doors at the company.
Embellishments aside, Flamin’ Hot is like the perfect snack or comfort food: consistent, delivering an experience that pleases because it is so familiar, and a classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story with a heavy dose of Latin flavor. It’s smart enough to avoid the dull tropes of films about the inner workings of a business, as Montañez provides enlightening insights into his community.
While a cynic might dismiss the film as branded content for PepsiCo and storied CEO Roger Enrico, it is undoubtedly a brand deposit for the company, highlighting a culture of innovation and investing in individuals with worthy ideas. For the general audience, one of its closest comparisons I could name is Hidden Figures––both are humorous crowd-pleasers about innovators working against the odds.
Flamin’ Hot premiered at SXSW and will be released on Hulu on June 9.