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‘Flamin’ Hot’ tells a chips-to-riches story in Eva Longoria’s feature directing debut

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — First-time directors rarely overshadow their stars, but Eva Longoria’s narrative feature debut serves as the main headline around “Flamin’ Hot,” a crowd-pleasing, chips-to-riches story (how true it is having been the subject of debate) premiering in the crowd-free environs of Disney+ and Hulu. Playfully presented, it’s the kind of mildly tasty cinematic snack that doesn’t exactly stick to your ribs.

The movie was inspired by the feel-good tale of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), a Frito-Lay janitor who rose into the executive ranks by leveraging his Mexican-American heritage to tap into an underserved community. Overcoming racial and class headwinds, Montañez persevered with assistance from a stern mentor (here played by Dennis Haysbert) and an open door from PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub).

What he might not have done, despite the title of his book “Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive,” is actually launch Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, based on subsequent reporting by the Los Angeles Times regarding the product’s development. In responding to the paper, Frito-Lay sought to celebrate his broader career arc while initially referring to the account that mirrors the movie’s version of those events as an “urban legend.”

Films and TV often play fast and loose with fact-based stories, and the undisputed aspects here involve more general themes around Montañez’s self-made career and the cultural forces at work in the 1980s. There’s also a personal part that involves his patient wife (Annie Gonzalez), which exists separately from whether he might have embellished his success story.

In an interview with People, Longoria said the goal was to celebrate Montañez as “the godfather of Hispanic marketing,” not the creation of a specific product, although the title and certain scenes in the movie don’t do much to clarify those distinctions.

Rather than sweat the details, “Flamin’ Hot” is perhaps best consumed in the context of its intent to highlight larger truths, depicting corporate blindness to a segment of the marketplace these companies didn’t understand.

The former “Desperate Housewives” star does what she can to enliven the material, portraying the pressures Montañez faced (sometimes through flights of fancy) at work and home, including skepticism from his own father (Emilio Rivera). Yet it’s hard to escape the fact “Flamin’ Hot” employs an extremely familiar formula, where the hurdles merely prolong the inevitable outcome, down to the threat that Montañez’s plant might get closed if it doesn’t do something to impress its head-office overlords.

Despite its blend of cultural specificity and universal appeal, “Flamin’ Hot” represents a shrinking genre, with scant room for such titles in theaters and broadcasters having moved on from the old “movies of the week” that this resembles.

Longoria (who hosts the CNN food/travel series “Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico”) has done an admirable job of wringing as much mileage as she can out of this underdog tale, but “Flamin’ Hot” is, by its very nature, a pretty lukewarm affair.

“Flamin’ Hot” premieres June 9 on Hulu and Disney+.

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