“Papi Chulo,” a buddy comedy set in Los Angeles that rests on outdated racial tropes, begins with the meltdown of Sean (Matt Bomer), a local weatherman. Newly single, he unravels into sobs live on camera, leading his news station to encourage him to take a leave.
Without his job to distract him, Sean tries to throw himself into housework. But what he longs for is companionship, a desire that is temporarily satisfied when he hires a day laborer, Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), to paint his deck. Sean quickly distracts his new hire with more leisurely duties, inviting Ernesto on hikes and to parties. Ernesto doesn’t speak or understand English, but he’s willing to humor Sean’s neediness for $20 an hour.
The writer-director John Butler emphasizes the exploitative dynamics underlying Sean’s assumption of friendship with Ernesto. Sean projects romantic fantasies onto their interactions, while Ernesto asks his wife for guidance with the “gringo” who pays for his company. Strangers make references to “Driving Miss Daisy,” which calls attention to Ernesto’s role serving the white, wealthy Sean.
This self-awareness has limitations. The jokes at Sean’s expense don’t negate the fact that “Papi Chulo” expects its audience to sympathize with Sean even when he disregards Ernesto’s boundaries. When Sean breaks down, Ernesto comforts him; when Sean invades Ernesto’s privacy, the other man forgives him. “Papi Chulo” tries to subvert the conceit that casts brown people as uncomplicated support systems for conflicted white people, but lacks the vision to transform these familiar stereotypes.
Rated R. Language and sex. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.
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