Papi Chulo, 2018.
Directed by John Butler.
Starring Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patino and Wendi McLendon-Covey.
At the end of a long relationship, a weatherman finds companionship with a handyman, but it soon becomes clear he is simply concealing his increasingly fractured mental state.
“Things have been somewhat nutty for me recently,” admits Matt Bomer’s Sean in the second half of Papi Chulo. Given the fact he’s blind drunk, covered in blood and looking directly at the body of a naked man, it’s fair to say this is possibly the biggest cinematic understatement of the year. Bomer is playing a TV weather reporter in the midst of a breakdown brought about by the collapse of his long-term relationship, and things have got pretty bad.
Sean lives in the most picturesque corner of Los Angeles, and is more or less confined to house arrest when he has an on-air episode that leads his boss Ash (Wendi McLendon-Covey) to coerce him into taking some time off. He leaves voicemails on his ex’s phone and hires handyman Ernesto (Alejandro Patino), ostensibly to repaint his decking but really because he just wants someone to talk to, despite the language barrier.
Audiences could be forgiven for having Green Book flashbacks when reading that premise, and writer-director John Butler is aware enough of that to throw in a Driving Miss Daisy gag. However, the relationship between Sean and Ernesto is written with enough sensitivity that any troubling optics are never more than a fleeting concern. It’s abundantly clear from the outset that Bomer’s Sean is the opposite of okay, and Ernesto represents everything he doesn’t have – a happy marriage and a comfortable family life.
The performances from Bomer and Patino are responsible for holding the movie afloat. Their chemistry is believable and grows organically throughout the carefully written script, with Bomer’s rambly agitation given an ideal counterpoint in Ernesto’s kind-hearted bemusement – Sean describes him as a “good listener”, after he has babbled incoherently in a language Ernesto couldn’t possibly understand. Bomer perfectly sells the unravelling of Sean’s mental state, which comes to a head with an abrupt narrative shift at the hour mark.
For its first hour, Papi Chulo is a rough approximation of what its day-glo posters and fluffy tone suggested from the beginning. It’s a wholesome comedy that deals in humorous misunderstandings and its odd couple protagonists bonding over a Madonna sing-along in the back of a taxi. However, in the wake of the aforementioned storyline pivot, the film becomes something more serious and emotionally complex, with Bomer selling that tonal shift perfectly as his “everything is okay” facade falls away. Butler’s second half delves deeper into Sean’s psyche, uncovering scars at which the likeable comedy of the first hour only hinted.
It’s not all plain sailing here, and the storytelling is a little too neat at times, with Patino’s home life never fleshed out beyond a couple of brief scenes. However, there’s no doubting the emotional core of the movie provided by those two central performances and the sensitivity of Butler’s tone. Green Book, this ain’t.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.