MovieMonday: Papi Chulo

Here’s a small but pleasant movie about a distressed man who can’t seem to get his act together.

The man is Sean (Matt Bomer,) a television weather guy in Los Angeles.  We meet him at work as he discusses the torrid weather of the moment.  One sentence trips him up.

“The hot dry gusts are a real hazard,” he almost manages to say before choking up.  Then he tries again, with worse results.  After two more tries, the camera switches back to the anchor desk.

Sean absolutely denies he was crying, but in fact he is a gay man still heartbroken over the lover who left him six months ago.  His pals at the TV station understand this.  They tell him to go home and take some time off.  “Talk to someone,” several suggest.

Back at his house, Sean gives away the large potted tree that he and his ex had placed on the outside deck.  After the tree is gone, there remains an unpainted hole in the place where the pot once sat.  (Metaphor!)

Sean paints the spot, but the result looks worse than before.  He goes back to the hardware store, picks up a much larger can of paint and a bigger paintbrush and hires a day laborer named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) to fix the problem.

Ernesto sets to work with a sander, and after a while Sean takes him to lunch, where it becomes clear that there are only a few Spanglish words that both men can understand.

Then Sean takes Ernesto for a rowboat ride in Echo Park Lake.  As Ernesto rows, Sean tells him in great detail about his breakup and how agonized he has been.  So finally Sean is “talking to someone” — to a perfectly reasonable person who has no idea what Sean is saying.

Events proceed from there.  Sean, who seems to have many good friends, depends instead on Ernesto for companionship and perhaps even more.  Ernesto, a paunchy man with a wife and five children, would prefer to work on the painting project but tries to be agreeable.

Hilarity ensues in the clashes among Hispanic and white workers, straight and gay people and gay men of various backgrounds.  This is a very Los Angeles thing, and there are many laugh-out-loud moments, especially as experienced by Ernesto who discusses them all in phone calls to his wife in Pico Rivera.

If there is a problem with this film, it is that Sean gets tiresome to watch.  Ernesto, (playing the straight man, if you will) handles himself nicely with the sort of patience seen in people who have large families and/or real problems.   His subtle but clearly dismayed reaction when Sean suggests they go for a hike, for instance, is a pleasure to behold.

This makes for a lot of fun, but not all movie critics dig it.  A typical comment:

“Ernesto is the token non-white character meant to help Sean’s character grow and learn from his mistakes, a riff on the ‘magical negro’ trope.”

Not sure I see this.  I can remember the bad old days when gays and lesbians were the oppressed, and this movie gives us a gay man who is behaving foolishly if humorously.  I also have met people of minority backgrounds, including poor people, who seem not to regard themselves as permanent victims of majority bias.  Is there no room to recognize minority persons as such in contemporary film?

Two thought experiments:  1) Would this be a better movie if the frantic gay guy were Hispanic and tried to befriend an old white guy who lived in a cardboard box in LA’s skid row?   2) Would it be more interesting if both the characters — the young gay man and the fifty-something pudgy hetero — were Hispanic?  Would that sell a lot of tickets in New York City?  Or Mexico City?

If we can’t enjoy the culture clashes of people from different communities, which is part of life in more places than Los Angeles and is certainly the premise of this film, what’s the point?


This movie comes from Irish-born writer-director John Butler, who obviously has spent time in Los Angeles, but who gets a few things wrong.

1.  People who live in LA typically are called AngeLAYnos, not AngeLINos, although the latter pronunciation does crop up, unfortunately, from time to time.

2.  Wood decks like Sean’s are not painted.  They may appear to have paint on their surfaces, but the typical application is some kind of stain.  I have lived in two houses with wood decks, and I have stained decks many times.  This is my truth.

3.  This movie is set in a hot, dry period when the Santa Ana winds are blowing in from the east — apparently to play upon Sean’s denial that he is crying (i.e., raining.)   Unfortunately, the film is set in the summer and ends around Labor Day.  In real-life Southern California, the Santa Anas are a winter phenomenon.  A similar warm weather pattern, Chinook winds, is observed (occasionally and with great pleasure) in the Pacific Northwest in early January.

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