Let’s say you want to make a movie about the dynamic between middle-class white folks and the undocumented dayworkers they employ (some would say “exploit”) in a city like Los Angeles. There are plenty of ways to go about it, any number of which could offer a welcome chance to illuminate the ubiquitous but under-chronicled relationship between those two groups: You could make a sentimental dramedy about a cross-cultural friendship, à la “Spanglish” or “Green Book,” or maybe a tense thriller in which the risk of arrest and deportation reveals the lopsided power balance that locks immigrants into such servitude.
Or you could come up with something totally out-of-touch and off-the-wall like “Papi Chulo,” an egregiously miscalculated rent-a-companion comedy from Irish writer-director John Butler (“Handsome Devil”), in which an egocentric gay man (Matt Bomer), abandoned by his longtime Latino lover, hires an undocumented handyman (California-born actor Alejandro Patiño) to erase all traces of his ex from around the house. Grateful not to be alone, and mistaking the non-English-speaking stranger’s silence for wisdom, he starts paying the guy just to keep him company, dragging him along for day hikes at Runyon Canyon and boat rides on Echo Park Lake. Hey, it’s cheaper than therapy, and a lot less problematic than hiring escorts off Instagram.
The irreverent title — Spanish slang for a handsome man, roughly equivalent to “hot stuff” or “mack daddy” — is a red flag in terms of what to expect from this well-meaning but smugly insensitive buddy comedy. Graduating from “Magic Mike” eye candy to leading man, Bomer plays Sean, a gorgeous, stereotypically prissy SoCal weatherman who has a meltdown on air in the film’s opening scene, prompting his boss to insist that he take some time off. It’s been six months since Carlos left Sean, and he’s still unable to move on.
The movie hinges on an ill-advised twist, misrepresenting for the first hour a situation that’s clear to all of Sean’s friends. If this were a mere breakup, as Butler leads us to believe, then Sean comes across as an oversensitive birdbrain, practically incapable of functioning on his own. Pinching his lips and fighting back the tears, Sean leaves rambling, unanswered messages on Carlos’ voicemail — like the passive-aggressive update in which he describes giving away a beautiful potted tree the couple owned together, only to be confronted by the weathered spot where it stood on the deck.
Hoping to erase the “vicious circle,” as he calls this latest reminder of his ex, Sean heads to the hardware store to buy some paint, noticing a gaggle of dayworkers out front. His first glimpse of Patiño’s character is hardly flattering, as Ernesto wipes his face with his shirt, exposing his potbelly in the process. Still, it’s not at all clear what Sean is thinking. Does this stranger remind him of Carlos? Is there some kind of unspoken fetish involved? A couple scenes later, after botching the paint job, Sean is back, looking for professional help from the pool of available Latinos. It’s a cringeworthy moment as Sean exhausts what little Spanish he knows (“Bueno … perfecto”) coaxing Ernesto into his filthy Prius, followed by an even more absurd exchange back at his house.
Such an interaction can’t help feeling forced in a city where different cultures are thrust into a kind of unnatural symbiosis. Here, out of offbeat necessity is born the nonsexual but nonetheless intimate connection between two men who might never have met or interacted, were it not for the transactional exchange between well-to-do Americans and the otherwise invisible underclass of day laborers on whom they rely. (A similar story could also be told with an attractive single woman in Sean’s place, although the gay element certainly gives “Papi Chulo” a dimension of unpredictability.)
It’s touching that Ernesto expresses no judgment as to Sean’s sexuality, but then, he’s being paid not to care — and Ernesto’s subtitled calls to his off-screen wife, who suspects he’s having an affair, reveal what he really thinks of his clueless employer. At a moment when audiences have become hyper-attuned to matters of representation and perspective, “Papi Chulo” seems unfortunately self-centered and uniquely ill-timed: In “Green Book’s” wake, we get “Gringo Boss” — a one-sided personal enlightenment comedy in which the film’s Latinx characters exist primarily for the benefit of a white hero’s evolution.
It doesn’t help that the movie hides from audiences the true source of Sean’s pain, despite its being woven into Bomer’s performance, while calling for a kind of physical comedy that’s beyond the actor’s range — a mix of slapstick (attempting to scoop spilled paint back into the can) and sitcom-style shtick (nervous fumbling during a Grindr-style housecall) that leaves us wincing for all the wrong reasons. Bringing an outsider’s eye to this distinctly Los Angeles dynamic, Irish-born Butler clearly intends for much of “Papi Chulo” to feel awkward, but it can be hard to determine how much of the character’s shallowness is by design, and at what point we should start faulting the film for his naïveté.
If Ernesto reminds Sean of his ex in some way, why is he only now expressing interest in Carlos’ language and culture? In the end, Sean’s redemption — which involves a humbling journey to East L.A. to find Ernesto on his home turf — hardly seems earned, while his catharsis feels like a cheat. In trying to humanize the characters on both sides, “Papi Chulo” falls back on stereotypes, and while Butler ultimately finds poignancy in the two men’s friendship, it’s hard to imagine anything quite like the bond he depicts existing in real life.