Review: Papi Chulo
by Kaleem Aftab
- TORONTO 2018: Irish director John Butler rains on his own parade in this dubious Californian buddy-buddy tale
It’s hot in California, where weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer) works on a local cable television station, but it’s cold in Sean’s heart. The source of his heartache can be found every time he stares at his mobile phone and sees a photo of his ex. There is an element of Jim Carrey’s sad sack from The Truman Show in Bomer’s performance as Sean tries to deal with his own reality whilst the rest of the world seems alien to him. Encouraged to take time off work after he breaks down live on air, Sean wants to move on with his life, but it’s hard when everything that happens to him is so laden with kitsch. In Papi Chulo, Irish director John Butler lays on the innuendos with thick paint in a scene between Sean and a buff African American hardware store assistant, and this sets the tone for the puerile humour. Enjoyment of Papi Chulo, playing in Special Presentations at the Toronto International Film Festival, relies upon having a high threshold for cheesy situational comedy and a tolerance of stereotypes.
Things brighten up for Sean when he finds himself a really good hombre. Needing a labourer to paint the deck of his lovely Los Angeles home in the hills, Sean picks up Mexican immigrant Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) in a workers' line-up that is reminiscent of the dockworkers in On the Waterfront, although it’s now not the white working class but the Mexican underclass who are desperate for jobs. Whilst keeping the tone light – “You guys got a Driving Miss Daisy thing going on” – Butler uses the newly formed “friendship” to hint at white privilege and class issues. While the director seems way off the mark with the suggestion that immigrants lack knowledge of world cuisine, the real failure to succeed in delivering a telling social critique comes down to the lack of enquiry into Ernesto’s life beyond funny phone calls to his wife and a huge Mexican party that a lonely Sean will, of course, crash. More originally, the strongest aspect of their friendship is Ernesto’s tolerance and indulgence of Sean’s homosexuality, while Sean just obsesses over himself. Butler’s desire to excuse Sean’s behaviour with a reveal and a pay-off is a troubling, although possibly accurate, reflection of the race and class divide in Los Angeles.
Papi Chulo is the Irish director’s third film, and the first to be located in America. When compared to his previous efforts Handsome Devil [+see also:
film profile] and The Stag [+see also:
film profile], here Butler does seem like an outsider looking in, as some of the nuances and insights that marked those earlier tales of difficult and unlikely friendships are absent here, and he relies too heavily on clumsy comedy to plug the holes.
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