Let’s start with the bad news: In all likelihood, Richard Montañez did not invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. He did work in marketing for Frito-Lay and did some groundbreaking work with Latinx markets. The famous bright-red, ultra-spicy dust, however, was the product of a working group at the company which Montañez had no involvement in. It’s an urban legend he himself perpetuated in his memoir Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive, the basis for the new Eva Longoria-directed film Flamin’ Hot.
If you’re okay with the fact that most of Montañez’s story—which the film presents as truth—is total fiction, let’s move on to the good news: Flamin’ Hot is pretty charming. In Longoria’s hands, helped with a script from Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, the movie is a tale of ingenuity and determination that reflects a love for Mexican American culture, without lionizing (at least, not too much) the corporate product at its center. Unlike Air, this isn’t a movie about chasing glory in service of material success. It’s about a hardworking guy trying to get ahead, who stumbles on a great idea that happens to make a white-run company cater to an underserved population. It’s a nice story, even if it isn’t true.
Flamin’ Hot gives us the arc of Montañez’s (Jesse Garcia) life from farmworker kid through his rise up the ranks at Frito-Lay. He meets his supportive wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez) when they’re both in elementary school. They bond over their shared identity as Mexican American kids surviving abusive fathers (if there’s another criticism to be lodged at Flamin’ Hot, it’s that it downplays this aspect of Montañez’s story to keep the tone cheerful and inspiring). As a teen, Montañez becomes a drug dealer, frequently on the wrong side of the law until Judy gets pregnant and they both decide to go straight.
Eventually, Montañez gets a janitor job at the Rancho Cucamonga Frito-Lay factory, where he ingratiates himself to the plant’s head mechanic (Dennis Haysbert), eager to learn the inner workings of the machines that make and package the snacks. In the 1980s, a recession endangers the factory’s future, and that hanging threat persists into the early ‘90s. That’s when Montañez—inspired by his younger son’s love of spicy elote—develops the idea for a spicy snack flavoring that will appeal to Latinx customers. He presents the idea to CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shaloub) as a Hail Mary bid to save the factory.
To its credit, Flamin’ Hot at least acknowledges Montañez’s propensity for exaggeration, and uses that to endearing effect. For instance, Montañez will relay his imagining of Frito-Lay boardroom meetings he wasn’t present for in gangster-speak, with the buttoned-up white actors mouthing his words and mimicking the implied actions while War’s “The Cisco Kid” plays underneath. Then, Montañez will admit it likely didn’t happen that way, and we’ll get a more straightforward, less entertaining replay of events, War now replaced with soothing classical music.
The movie also addresses cultural issues and injustice with admirable honesty. Judy repeatedly reminds Montañez that he needs to air his long-standing issues with his father Vacho (Emilio Rivera) so that the same problems won’t define his own relationship with his sons, whom Montañez is noticeably more sensitive with. The film is also quick to note how Montañez’s experience—from early incarceration to difficulty getting a job to struggling to have his ideas heard—would have been different if he were white, so different that it probably wouldn’t be worth making a film about.
Longoria’s previous feature directing effort, the boxing documentary La Guerra Civil, dealt with similar themes in a no-nonsense manner. Between the two movies, it’s clear that issues of mental health, generational trauma, toxic masculinity and institutional discrimination in the Mexican American community are important to her, even if those aspects are secondary to the story she’s telling. Like La Guerra Civil, what’s mostly here is love, reflected in language, positive relationships, cultural pride and everyday details—from Montañez’s old-school pickup truck to references to the Chicano movement to the many varieties of chilis he and Judy experiment with as they work to get the Flamin’ Hot mix just right.
Would all this be better if Flamin’ Hot weren’t based on one guy’s well-documented self-mythologizing? Sure. But like the exaggerated yarns Montañez weaves throughout the movie, the truth is much less interesting. The legend, on the other hand, is colorful, heartwarming and surprisingly fun, and Flamin’ Hot is far from the only movie of its kind to tell a tall tale disguised as an account of actual events. Don’t look too closely behind the curtain, and you’ll have a moderately rewarding time.
Director: Eva Longoria
Writer: Lewis Colick, Linda Yvette Chávez
Starring: Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub
Release Date: June 9, 2023 (Hulu)
Abby Olcese is an entertainment writer based in Kansas City. Her work has appeared at /Film, rogerebert.com, Crooked Marquee, Sojourners Magazine, and Think Christian. You can follow her adventures and pop culture obsessions at @abbyolcese.