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Non-Review Review: Papi Chulo

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Papi Chulo has a very narrow line to walk.

At its core, Papi Chulo is a very old-fashioned opposites-ultimately-attract buddy comedy. In keeping with the conventions of the genre, the central duo crosses racial and class divides. It is the story of a burnt-out Los Angeles weatherman who hires a Mexican day labourer to (ostensibly) paint his patio deck. Despite the fact that the two are from very different worlds and literally speak different languages, an unlikely bond develops between the two. This is a fairly standard set-up, and an old feel-good Hollywood standard. Indeed, Green Book employed the formula to considerable awards-season success, demonstrating that the template endures.

Peak happiness.

As such, Papi Chulo comes a fascinating premise, but a loaded one. Indeed, the Green Book comparison is something of a double-edged sword. The decision to position an immigrant day labourer as one half of the mismatched couple at the centre of Papi Chulo gives the movie a lot of political weight in the current cultural climate. It would be impossible for a movie about an unlikely friendship between a white man and a Mexican in modern California that crosses class divides not to resonate with everything else happening in the world around it. In fact, given the popularity of this sort of template for exploring issues of race and class in America, it is surprising that there have been so few movies along these lines. It is also surprising that this movie comes from an Irish director.

To be fair to Papi Chulo, the movie always seems aware of how deeply awkward it is for a rich white person to hire a day labourer to (in effect) be his friend. That power imbalance and privilege is always lurking off-screen, and the film is never particularly ambiguous in its assessment of Sean’s behaviour; the weatherman is not working through his issues in a healthy way, but imposing himself on Ernesto. However, these issues never come to the fore, and are only fleetingly acknowledged over the course of the film. This works well enough when the film can count on the unlikely chemistry between Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patino to carry the first half of the film, but it doesn’t really work when the film makes a conscious choice to separate the duo in the second half.

Snap chat.

There is a reason that this sort of unlikely buddy comedy movie has endured for as long as it has, while other genres like the western and the romantic comedies have drifted from the centre to the periphery of the public consciousness. Similarly, there is a reason why this sort of movie is one of the rare spaces in which mainstream (white) American audiences seem comfortable discussing ideas of race and class. Part of that might be because these movies strip away discussions of systems and structures to focus on individuals, which resonates culturally with ideas of American exceptions and which also works narratively in providing a neat story structure to which the script might adhere.

However, the core appeal of the buddy comedy movie will always be the buddies. These movies live and die by the talent of the two central cast members. Indeed, it is no surprise that Green Book‘s status as an awards season favourite seems tethered to the awards season fortunes of its two leading actors in a way that it isn’t for other awards season hits like Roma, BlacKkKlansman or Black Panther. Casting two charming actors and crafting two engaging characters will get a movie like this halfway home. Writer and director John Butler accomplishes that with Papi Chulo, by casting two actors owho work together as well as Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patino and providing two characters as engaging as Sean and Ernesto.

Sean is the character who carries most of the narrative, and also the one who presents the most challenging perspective. Sean is a television weatherman who has a breakdown live on air. Forced to take leave for the first time in four years, Sean finds himself without work to focus his mind, and so begins to process the trauma in his personal life that he had previously repressed. Bomer is given a challenging role here, asked to play a character who is wound so tightly that he might implode at any given moment, who must walk a tightrope between being sympathetic and pitiable. Sean has to be so convincingly self-absorbed as to be oblivious to how little agency he is affording Ernesto, while still feeling like a complex and multifaceted human being.

It is a demanding role. Bomer does good work as Sean, ably communicating a blend of self-centredness and vulnerability. Sean is clearly a mess of a human being, but in a way that manages to avoid making too many excuses for him while also responding with empathy and compassion to his situation. It is a role that requires considerable comic timing but also a great deal of dramatic depth. Bomer acquits himself very well by both standards, and is a large part of the reason why the movie works as well as it does despite the problems baked into the premise. It helps that Bomer has a great scene partner with which he might work.

Business is Bomering.

Ernesto is perhaps an even trickier role, the secondary lead in a (mostly) English language film who can only speak in broken sentences on rare occasions. While Papi Chulo is very much anchored in Sean’s perspective, with only a few fleeting glimpses of Ernesto’s home life, the film works hard to suggest an interiority and complexity to the character. Papi Chulo lives or dies by Ernesto’s response to Sean’s self-centredness, and to the manner in which Sean is willfully oblivious to Ernesto’s own life. The film cannily chooses to play Ernesto as bemused and well-meaning. He is, at the very least, game for the absurd suggestions that Sean makes and open-minded in terms of assessing Sean’s activities.

Ernesto responds to an unexpected kiss on the lips from one of Sean’s friends with a blank stare rather than with shock at the violation of his personal space. He playfully jokes off an awkward advance from Sean after a late-night Uber ride home, joking with his wife, “I guess I am irresistible.” The fact that Ernesto is having fun with this situation serves to give the audience the freedom to go along with the premise. After all, had Ernesto responded (justifiably) with more skepticism or more frustration towards how Sean treated him, it would completely change the balance of the film. This means that Ernesto arguably has even more structural weight placed upon him than Sean.

Again, Butler’s script and casting serve the movie well. Ernesto’s indulgence of Sean’s whims is developed and explored over the course of the film, and the film’s closing act reveals that such compassion is not afforded lightly; Ernesto is a genuinely humanist and empathic character who is responding to something that he senses within Sean. (More astute audience members might also suspect this as well, even if the film awkwardly tries to conceal one of its central premises for a third act twist that feels contrived; contrived not as a story development, but as something that needed to be hidden in the first place.) Alejandro Patino does great work, playing Ernesto as a character who always seems to know more than he will actually admit to anybody.

At the same time, as charming as these characters and actors might be, the film struggles with the dynamic between them. This is less of an issue in the scenes that the two share, which work because of the delightful odd-couple pairing and the unexpected chemistry between the two leads. However, it becomes more of an issue when the second half of the film chooses to separate the duo to focus on Sean’s problems almost exclusively. It’s an understandable structural choice, given the story that Butler is telling, but it only underscores the gulf that exists between the lives of the two leads and the vast imbalance that exists between them; while Sean’s situation is tragic, Ernesto would never have the luxuries that Sean has to deal with his own issues.

Resting uneasy.

Again, Papi Chulo is a shrewder film than these issues might make it sound. Ernesto’s lives experiences simmer in the background of Papi Chulo, even if the film never foregrounds them. It is aware of the undertones of the relationship, even if it never brings them to the surface. A minor character remarks of Sean’s situation, “You two got a Driving Miss Daisy thing going on?” When Sean inadvertently suggests “building a wall” around his emotions, Ernesto is visibly uncomfortable and Sean remains oblivious. It’s telling that the big communal moment between the two involves them singing Borderline in the back of an Uber. While Sean describes his fear of his internalised homophobia, when asked what he is afraid of, Ernesto responds, “Immigration.”

As such, Papi Chulo is constantly cognisant of the issue’s baked into its premise, even if it never confronts them directly. To be fair, the chemistry between the two unlikely leads is enough that this never really becomes a problem while they are together; Ernesto is just wary enough and Sean is just oblivious enough that the dynamic is consistently workable. It becomes more of an issue in the second half when the film affords the audience room to process what is actually unfolding. It doesn’t help matters that the narrative becomes unfocused and meandering following that separation. It’s a shame, because the first half of Papi Chulo is something genuinely disarming and special.

In aggregate, Papi Chulo is a well-meaning film that is once aware of the minefield that it is navigating and oblivious nonetheless. It is confident that its charm will get it far, and it certainly does. That charm gets the film at least halfway home.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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