I’ve lived in Los Angeles since I was 10, and as a cinephile I’ve seen a ton of flicks about the city I love. Papi Chulo, though set in La La Land (Eagle Rock and Pico Rivera to be specific), is not an ode or an attack on La La Land. Rather, it’s altogether something different, and its subtle storytelling approach is buoyed by excellent work from its two leads (Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño).
Sean (Matt Bomer) is a TV weatherman who has a tear filled, emotional breakdown while discussing another dry, hot day in the city, and his boss (The Goldbergs’ Wendi McLendon-Covey) understandably wants him to take a leave of absence (D’Arcy Carden co-stars as Sean’s concerned co-worker Susan).
Taking a few weeks off may be the comfort that Sean, who’s seemingly work centric, needs. Unfortunately, Sean is going it alone these days, as his longtime relationship is over. His patio deck, which features a stunning view of the hills and mountains of Los Angeles, has a noticeable stain that needs to be painted over, so he hires a Mexican day laborer named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) to do the job. The deck, which also needs sanding, is a task that will take more than a few hours, so the pair are pretty much stuck in the same house for a couple of days. Ernesto quickly realizes his labors won’t center on his own home improvement know how; Sean needs a friend in a desperate way, so that deck may have to wait.
Papi Chulo’s tale of mismatched friendships isn’t a new tale, but writer/director John Butler takes a well worn story into much deeper and unexpected territory. Butler refuses to have Bomer or Patiño play the camera for cheap laughs, so if you’re expecting a buddy tale with lowest common denominator pratfalls or corny jokes, this isn’t for you (these type of films have their place and time, but Papi Chulo travels a different direction).
The film’s opening moments, which captures Sean’s breakdown, also seemed to have been going for laughs, and it actually seemed like an homage to the “mad as hell” moment from Network. Butler refreshingly misdirects the scene, seducing us into believing a laugh is coming. Instead he injects a humanistic level to the proceedings, leading us to immediately be concerned for Sean’s well being.
This being Los Angeles, Sean speaks a bit of broken Spanish and Ernesto tries his best at understanding English. Again, Butler doesn’t overwork this miscommunication element, but instead seamlessly integrates it into this ultimately resonant story. Ernesto, with his poker face and innate kindness, is the film’s anchor while Sean is aimlessly twisting in the wind, haunted by the nighttime’s incessant howl of the seemingly distant coyotes.
On a visual level Butler makes good use of Echo Park Lake and a hike in the canyons, and these two moments deliver two of the film’s most notable “getting to know you” sequences. Each scene has relatively few people in the surrounding area, which may seem odd to most viewers but, whether or not Butler was actually going for this, perfectly encapsulates the sense of isolation Sean feels amidst the deceptively claustrophobic confines of his town.
Butler could have also used Carden and McLendon-Covey to more comic effect, and while some may complain that their respective talents were woefully underused in Papi Chulo, this is a story about friendship told from an insular perspective. Adding comedic flourishes to an intimate story such as Papi Chulo would have cheapened the entire experience.
Actually it’s Ryan Guzman, playing a potential hookup for Sean who arrives at our protagonist’s doorstep, who delivers the film’s strongest cameo. Guzman infuses his all-too brief role with a knowing level of humanity, making his character more than just potential eye candy for Sean. These small instances are spread throughout Papi Chulo, an tightly woven drama about finding a friend in even the unlikeliest of places. Bomer and Patiño approach their roles in a three dimensional manner, and their chemistry together, like the story, feels grounded in reality.
Loneliness is rampant in Los Angeles, but this is a universal tale (Butler is an Irish filmmaker), so don’t be surprised if Papi Chulo knocks at your door with a beautifully rendered story to tell.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Papi Chulo is now playing in select theaters.