“Refuses to delve deeper than the surface.”
In sunny Los Angeles, Sean (Matt Bomer) is a conventionally attractive upper middle-class gay weather man, who has everything going for him until he has a mental breakdown on live television after a supposed breakup. His coworkers, Ash (Wendy McLendon-Covey) and Susan (D’Arcy Carden) are incredibly supportive; they even encourage him to take time off from work and even send him therapist referrals. Instead of taking their advice, Sean decides to repaint his deck, enlisting the help of Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a working family man who does not speak English, after randomly selecting him outside of a hardware store. The remainder of the movie consists of white knuckling one’s way through Sean and Ernesto’s one-sided therapy sessions in which Sean pays Ernesto a lot of money to listen to his problems despite the language barrier. Sean’s mental health rapidly deteriorates as he realizes he is falling in love with Ernesto, who vaguely resembles his lost love.
Papi Chulo asks, “What if Green Book and Joker had a crossover special?” The answer is as riddled with harmful stereotypes about people of color and people with mental illnesses as one might expect. The first stereotype is Ernesto as the “noble savage,” or the character of color who spends most of the movie helping the white protagonist find enlightenment, or in Sean’s case, mental stability. Ernesto is an immigrant with a family who works in construction, and that is all that the audience knows about him outside of his one-sided relationship with Sean. Although they do not speak the same language, Ernesto’s kindness and willingness to listen are supposedly what help Sean through the grieving process and even lead Sean to fall in love; of course, this is a nice thought until the power imbalance between the two men is brought into perspective. When Ernesto rejects Sean’s advances, there are consequences, but instead the film still focuses on Sean, who becomes the stereotypical spiraling out nutcase. Sean’s grief is not depicted as complex and he is simply written off as crazy in a “plot twist” that many will see coming from a mile away.
Ultimately, Papi Chulo is an attempt to explore grief, immigration, wealth inequality, and mental health issues, but it fails on all counts because of writer/director John Butler’s refusal to delve deeper than the surface of Sean and Ernesto’s lives. Matt Bomer tries his best with the material, but the film still strains under the pressure of the predictable script that ultimately leads nowhere.
Dir: John Butler
Prod: Compton Ross, Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher, Phil Hunt
Cast: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, D’Arcy Carden, Wendy McLendon-Covey
Release Date: 2018
Available on: YouTube, Amazon Prime, Vudu