John Butler’s Papi Chulo Confuses Objectification for Connection
John Butler’s Papi Chulo is a shrill and insipid spectacle of cross-cultural communion, but don’t call it stupid, as that would suggest that it doesn’t know exactly what it’s doing.
For one, “papi chulo” is pointedly never spoken in the film, which traces the emotional breakdown of a TV weatherman. Sean (Matt Bomer), reeling from a recent breakup and who desperately strikes up a friendship with a Latino migrant, Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño).
“A vicious circle,” says Sean, describing the unpainted part of his deck beneath the enormous potted plant that. He once nurtured with his ex, whose name Sean conspicuously relays over voicemail. As if trying to tell us something that the film otherwise refuses to explicitly acknowledge: “That is it…Carlos, the last vestiges of us have now been swept away.” If only.
Papi Chulo certainly has no qualms about driving a metaphor into the ground.
The film begins in medias res, with Sean having a meltdown on live television. That while reporting on a scorching heat wave sweeping through Los Angeles. He’s given a sabbatical that he’ll come to understand as a tacit firing. And at exactly the point that the job no longer really matters to him.
But first, he must get his deck paint. Picking Ernesto out from a line of bedraggle migrants standing on the street near the local paint shop. Sean brings him back to his luxe abode, and even before he’s offer Ernesto grub from the Vietnamese place down the block. It’s already clear that what Sean really needs is to have someone fill the hole in his heart.
What follows is a series of cringe-inducing events that find the lonely, obsequious Sean taking the quietly obliging Ernesto on day trips around Los Angeles. “You guys got a Driving Miss Daisy thing going on,” says a boat attendant (Nick Bush) after watching Ernesto row Sean around a city lake.
For most films in the post-Green Book era, the moment would constitute a great humbling. But Sean comports himself with a level of wokeness that will otherwise elude him for the rest of Papi Chulo: “Let’s just ease up with all the lazy assumptions.” Later, Ernesto guiltily acknowledges in a phone conversation to his wife (Elena Campbell-Martinez). That he sees what the stranger by the lake does: that his bond to Sean is, in the words of Wesley Morris. “conditionally transactional, possible only if it’s mediate by money.”
The film doesn’t lack for such moments of performative self-awareness—hamfisted attempts on Butler’s part to deflect criticism from his disinterest in scrutinizing the power dynamics of Sean and Ernesto’s relationship.
Butler sees only sincerity in whatever it is that pulls Sean to the chubby, fiftysomething Ernesto like some gravitational force. Indeed, by the time Sean makes an obligatorily fumble attempt at kissing Ernesto. We understand that he does so reflexively and in a state of drunkenness.
Which is to say, Sean’s gesture falls within some kind of normal realm of platonic intimacy. It’s a risky move that might have work had Butler not already made a calculate show of grooming Ernesto to reasonably react to Sean’s advance. As the pair has just left a party where one of Sean’s friends gave Ernesto a kiss on the cheek.
Papi Chulo is certainly intently devote to the hoariness of this odd-couple scenario, dropping Madonna’s “Borderline”. That on the soundtrack as Ernesto enjoys the reverie of having been freed. If just a little, from the homophobia that Butler believes is inherent to the identity of the straight Latino man. Ernesto subsequently disappears, and by the time Sean finds him, in the midst of interrupting a quinceañera in slapstick fashion. We’re suddenly in the suspenseful realm of Sean’s redemption-through-degradation. That depending on whatever mercy lies behind Ernesto’s stereotypical stoicism.
Just about the only person capable of calling out Sean for being obliviously self-serving is a gorgeous GROWLr hookup, Rodrigo (Ryan Guzman), who drops trou within seconds of arriving at his house.
But that Rodrigo magically intuits that Sean is too hung up on someone else to get it together for their hookup. That is almost as specious as the easy out of having Sean get blood on his hands and face from breaking a drinking glass.
For a film call Papi Chulo, it’s curious to watch Butler go to such lengths to beat around the bush of Sean’s obvious affinity. That for Latino men by making him seem so weirdly chaste. In the end, the film doesn’t care to make concrete what Sean lost when the unseen Carlos walk out the door. And so it’s impossible not to see Ernesto as some kind of replacement toy for the man’s ex.
An honest film would have had Sean cop to the obsessive, objectifying nature of his desire. Maybe even allow him to fuck Rodrigo without apology. But this is a film that trades only in sentimentalize fantasy. It’s offensive at first blush that Rodrigo turns out to be an armchair psychologist, patient in ways. That connects to Ernesto’s almost saint-like sense of understanding. But that’s only until you realize that they’re just like everyone else in the film. That existing to soothe the fragile ego of the most self-absorb queen in the universe.
Rating: R (for language)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Directed By: John Butler
Stars: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez
Written By: John Butler
In Theaters: Jun 7, 2019 Limited
Runtime: 98 minutes
Studio: Blue Fox Entertainment
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR PAPI CHULO
Papi Chulo is a charming, well-acted film about a lonely man and the only person he could find to be his friend.
A one-sided personal enlightenment comedy in which the film’s Latinx characters exist primarily for the benefit of a white hero’s evolution.
There’s an offbeat charm to the low-key American comedy-drama Papi Chulo, which gets under the skin as it explores some deep emotional themes with a light touch.
I wish the movie were more successful as its chosen and worthy topic but it does get distracted and distracting while attempting to dramatize cross cultural divides especially when it tries for comic beats.