As of June 9, 2023, we live in a world where Flamin’ Hot Cheetos have their own film. Debuting last week on Hulu and Disney+, Flamin’ Hot aims to tell “the inspiring true story of Richard Montañez,” the man who, according to legend, invented the iconic, fire-engine-red Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while working as a janitor for Frito-Lay.
The consequences of snack food cinema are a lot to take in. What’s next, the Chronicles of Sour Cream & Onion, or perhaps the shared universe of Mr. Peanut and Andy Capp? And if we’re thinking video game tie-ins, you should know that Chester Cheetah really did it first.
But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After all, the trailer for Searchlight Pictures’ Flamin Hot paints the portrait of a man, not a cheese doodle. I sat through the entirety of this film last night and have been chewing over my conclusions ever since.
Before I get to the film itself, there are two things that need to be addressed. First, the historical veracity: Despite decades of claims by Montañez and an apparent willingness by Frito-Lay to let the feel-good story spread, the origins of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are a bit more complicated. Montañez’s claims and timeline bear a number of orange smudges, as explored by Sam Dean of the Los Angeles Times.
According to Dean’s numerous interviews and Frito-Lay’s own records, the Flamin’ Hot variant was developed “by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas.” Credit for the name and brand development goes to Lynne Greenfield, a young MBA who worked for the company at the time.
Yet as Dean’s fellow L.A. Times columnist Gustavo Arellano points out, the heart of Montañez’s story rings true: “He did go from janitor to, you know, vice president at Frito-Lay,” says Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “It just seems that he didn’t really invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”
All right, so we’re dealing with this film on a fairy-tale, feel-good level. But that doesn’t change the second caveat here: This is an iconic success story in the Latino community, and I, no matter how many tacos I eat, am as white as Wonder Bread. I’m simply not equipped to comment on the experiences of Mexican workers in the ’80s. My own experience has included a chunk of time working in some factory food plants with a wonderful Mexican crew. So, here’s one way I tried to view Flamin’ Hot: Would Mondo, David, and Alfredo have liked this movie? I think the answer is “quizás.”
Flamin’ Hot is based off Montañez’s memoir, A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive. The film adaptation was penned by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez and marks the directorial debut of Eva Longoria. Jesse Garcia stars as the janitor-turned-exec, accompanied by Annie Gonzalez as his wife, Judy. Dennis Haysbert provides a nice turn as the veteran plant engineer that takes Montañez under his wing. But it’s Tony Shalhoub who has the hardest acting job of all: portraying a CEO with the soul of an actual human. He pulls it off as Roger Enrico, but remember, kids, it was a different time, and this movie is a bit of a fairy tale.
The beginning of the film takes us through Montañez’s struggles as a youth. Covering domestic troubles and the young man’s flirtation with both his future wife and a career in crime, the script is as schmaltzy as it is sincere—a theme that continues as the scenes roll on. Our protagonist is at once portrayed as downtrodden, scrappy, naïve, and something of a goober. Yet as Montañez, Garcia manages to be likable; viewers will find themselves curious to see how he’ll succeed, whether by happenstance, bumbling, or hard work.
Once we get to the Frito-Lay plant, the film hits a decent stride, and the protagonist’s joy feels earned, particularly after a degrading hiring process to get there. I’ve spent my share of time in industrial settings, and I can confirm that Garcia’s wonder at stepping onto the factory floor is real.
This is another point worth mentioning: The production process, machinery, and interiors of the Frito-Lay plant provide a source of visual interest as we’re introduced to the complicated dynamics between plant managers, floor managers, machine operators, and laborers. There are some fun, fantasy-based scenes and gags sprinkled in here, in which the actors get to play a situation two ways: first, with the underlying emotions on display, and next with the dry harshness of reality. These moments of lightness, plus a clever “passage of time” montage, help brighten what could be a depressing stretch of the movie.
Yet like your stomach after taking down a bag of Cheetos, Flamin’ Hot gets deceptively heavy later on. There’s racism, crime, an underdog mentality, and even the weaponization of religion within a family structure. Garcia’s Montañez enthuses his way through each crisis, wearing his heart on his sleeve and providing that good-natured grace expected of a hero in an “inspirational” film. Sure, the plant manager is a horrible jerk, but even he gathers ’round to applaud when the music swells at the end of act 3.
If I sound a bit cynical, it’s because, quite frankly, I am. As laudable as Montañez’s journey (both real and fabricated) might be, I was left with the distinct impression that I’d just watched a 99-minute ad about the power of snacks, family counseling, and a “by-the-bootstraps” mentality, all sponsored by the Christian church. This last bit shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the film’s production house. Most annoyingly of all, I found myself craving Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
On their own, each of these takeaways is fairly benign. But like the (admittedly delightful) sequence in which Montañez and his family throw all of the spicy chiles together in an effort at their first coating, everything comes out hot and muddled. Some of these flavors don’t mix, and there’s something disquieting about a film whose entire message is “Work hard in the face of adversity, but also buy my product.”
As snack-based movies go, there are nevertheless some positive things to be said here. The acting is decent, and most of the characters are likable. There’s also something noteworthy about the motivational nature of the story. In the end, the message on display, although a bit artificial, is much more wholesome than some other films about mass-produced snacks we can name.