×

Film Review: ‘Papi Chulo’

Co-stars Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patiño establish an awkward chemistry in this peculiar dramedy about a Los Angeles gay man who hires an undocumented Latino dayworker to keep him company.

Director:
John Butler
With:
Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño

Rated R  Running time: 99 MIN.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Papi Chulo'

Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 6, 2019. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: A Blue Fox Entertainment release of a Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland presentation of a Treasure Entertainment production, in association with RTÉ Entertainment, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Bankside Films. Producers: Rebecca O'Flanagan, Robert Walpole. Executive producers: Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Jo Henriquez.

Crew: Director, writer: John Butler. Camera (color, widescreen): Cathal Watters. Editor: John O'Connor. Music: John McPhillips.

With: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Wendi McLendon-Covey, D'Arcy Carden, Brandon Kyle Goodman Brandon Kyle Goodman. (English, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • Cat in the Wall Movie Sarajevo

    Sarajevo Film Festival Builds Bridges Through Art

    Rising from the rubble of the Bosnian War to become one of Southeastern Europe’s leading film and TV industry events, the Sarajevo Film Festival has plenty to celebrate as it marks its 25th edition this year. The festival was established in 1995 during the four-year siege of Sarajevo as part of an effort to help [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]

  • Patricia Louisiana Knop Dead: Screenwriter Was

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop Dies at 78

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop, who collaborated with her producer-director husband Zalman King on erotically-charged films of the late 1980s and 1990s including “Siesta” and “9 1/2 Weeks,” died Aug. 7 in Santa Monica after a lengthy illness. “9 1/2 Weeks,” starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, was directed by Adrian Lyne, co-produced by King and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content