We’ll get the liberties out of the way: The subject of Eva Longoria’s narrative feature directorial debut (she directed the doc “La Guerra Civil”) is businessman and entrepreneur Richard Montañez. He has lived an extraordinary life that saw him rise from a childhood in a migrant labor camp to becoming a PepsiCo executive and an in-demand motivational speaker. However, he did not actually invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. So yes, it’s unfortunate that Longoria’s energetic and loving feature is, well, all about Richard Montañez inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
It’s an inspiring story that Montañez told for years — he even wrote a book about it — and which has now gotten the biopic treatment, care of the aptly titled “Flamin’ Hot.” But any biopic engenders scrutiny and in May 2021, the Los Angeles Times published an expose about how Montañez didn’t actually do the one thing he’s long said he did. Throughout Longoria’s film, written by Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick, Montañez’s Flamin’ Hot origin story is told, along with a slew of other lightly buffed-over truths. It’s entertaining enough, but this is a story that doesn’t feel real, mostly because it isn’t.
That’s perhaps why Longoria’s film often falls into the expected tropes of the inspiring biopic (factory floor-set inspirational speeches, the lights buzzing off in the family home when money gets tight) and leans on a series of mostly misbegotten fantasy sequences to fluff up the proceedings. The stuff that is good about “Flamin’ Hot,” including star Jesse Garcia, dedication to uplifting the Mexican-American community, and compulsively watchable sequences of junk food being made (seriously) is very good indeed. Longoria has the eye and heart for crowd-pleasing movie-making.
The Montañez of Longoria’s film is a striver, a hard worker who’s proud of his heritage and eager to make a name for himself while being realistic about some of his foibles. We follow Richard through his younger years as Garcia’s energy and charisma almost make us forget the 40-year-old actor is playing way younger — as he and long-time love Judy (the delightful Annie Gonzalez) attempt to make a life. Richard’s early forays into drug dealing are addressed and then glossed over in favor of portraying him as a smart dude who needs a break. Sometimes, he gets them — like when a judge doesn’t lock him over his latest charge — but just as often, things get tough again.
When Judy gets pregnant, Richard knows he has to step up. But it’s not that easy — a fact of life that Longoria’s film embraces — and with a criminal record and no high school diploma, finding a good job is its own occupation. Eventually, Richard lands at Frito-Lay as a janitor and he vows to excel. That he does, for nearly a decade. (Another fact-check pause: “Flamin’ Hot” makes a major subplot out of Frito-Lay’s resistance to promoting Richard, the real Richard was allegedly promoted within his first year at the Rancho Cucamonga site.)
Richard wants to be the best he can be. In the world of “Flamin’ Hot,” that involves not only kicking ass as a janitor, but seeking out mentorship from whiz engineer Clarence (Dennis Haysbert). But is hard work enough? As Richard faces all sorts of roadblocks, from the racism he’s dealt with his entire life to a crumbling economy, even his bootstrap mentality doesn’t ensure success. But you know what does? Actual innovation.
As “Flamin’ Hot” piles on the worries — from Reagan-era economic concerns to a fractious relationship with his father that’s barely explored — Richard realizes he needs to do something big. Enter: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. (One more fact-check pause: The film does mention that another subset of Frito-Lay execs was working on a spicy chip, but enjoying “Flamin’ Hot” means being wholly vested in Richard’s quest.) If there’s one thing Richard — real and movie — knows, it’s that Mexican-Americans have money to spend and they’ve got taste buds that need tickling, something the rest of the snack-food industry wasn’t hip to before Richard came along.
That Montañez’s story ultimately led him to a place where that message could be delivered, both in a glossy film and in his career, is worth celebrating. Those underdog elements that really happened ring most true in an otherwise predictable film. Real life is messy and not always built for the movies, but when “Flamin’ Hot” leans too far into the only-in-Hollywood, we lose something far more satisfying than the spice-dusted cheese puffs.
“Flamin’ Hot” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It will start streaming on Hulu on Friday, June 9.