Review: ‘Flamin’ Hot’ tells inspiring (true?) tale of underdog Frito-Lay janitor

Jesse Garcia stars in the new movie “Flamin’ Hot.” (Emily Aragones/Searchlight Pictures)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Flamin' Hot'

Call it superhero fatigue or multiverse exhaustion, but lately, I have been drawn to inspiring, true stories about the making of real-life products because they ironically feel less packaged than blockbuster franchises.

I have found myself surprisingly intrigued by movies like “Tetris,” “Air,” “BlackBerry” and now “Flamin’ Hot,” which takes a few liberties with the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but still provides an inspiring underdog story that premiered at South By Southwest and now hits streaming Friday on Hulu and Disney+.

Based on his disputed 2013 memoir, “A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive,” the film follows Richard Montañez, the son of a Mexican immigrant, who’s out of work and struggling to provide for his blue-collar family in Los Angeles. Unable to read job applications, he manages to land a gig as a janitor at the Frito-Lay factory before brainstorming a tasty new product by applying spicy sauces to create the bestselling Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

You might recognize lead actor Jesse Garcia from the Sundance champ “Quinceañera” (2006) or recurring TV roles in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” (2011) and Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico” (2020). In “Flamin’ Hot,” he is everything you could want from a protagonist, an unquestionably likable narrator and unassuming screen presence, but also not super famous so that he remains an utterly believable underdog like Sylvester Stallone in the original “Rocky” (1976).

Garcia is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast at the factory, including Dennis Haysbert (“Major League”) as machine worker Clarence C. Baker, who takes him under his wing. Matt Walsh (“Veep”) plays floor manager Lonny Mason, who keeps him down with racist comments. Tony Shalhoub (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) appears as open-minded PepsiCo C.E.O. Roger Enrico, who is willing to take a chance on a janitor’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Still, the most important support comes from Richard’s wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez), a devout Christian who keeps the faith by lighting candles for blessings from above. She also helps out with practical matters like filling out his job applications, taste-testing various spicy sauces on bags of chips at their kitchen table (cleverly coated in a bingo lottery spinner), then spreading the word by promoting their new homemade product out on the streets.

Together, they have an adorable, stress-reducing trick where they take each other’s hands and take turns counting down “3, 2, 1,” until they have calmed down. Viewers should try this with their own significant others. If it helps, send a thank-you note to screenwriters Lewis Colick (“Ladder 49”) and Linda Yvette Chávez (“Gentefied”), who make effective use of voice-over narration and freeze frames to joke, “OK, it didn’t really happen that way.”

The origin story was disputed by a 2021 L.A. Times article, claiming the product was created by Frito-Lay engineers in a Midwest lab — a brief cutaway scene in the film — long before Montañez called Enrico. Former C.E.O. Al Carey defended Montañez by saying, “Without Richard, this thing would not be out there.”

As they say in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Similar to “The Woman King” (2022), “Flamin’ Hot” may take factual liberties but still marks an inspiring feature directorial debut by actress Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”), who has previously directed TV episodes of “Jane the Virgin” (2016) and “black-ish” (2017-2019). As a daughter of Mexican parents, the subject matter feels personal to her, and if this movie is any indication, she just might have an underdog career behind the camera.

3 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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