To paraphrase my initial reaction as I sat in the theater fuming, Papi Chulo is a poisionously bad, blindly racist and sadistically awful film. Supremely, unconscionable shit.
It’s rare that I get so riled by a seemingly innocuous bit of nonsense like this. The film was directed by John Butler, whose sardonic The Stag I quite enjoyed. It means to be a playful tale of friendship and grief, tracing the travails of well-manicured weather man Sean (Matt Bomer) who, after having a weepy breakdown during a broadcast, seeks friendship from local day laborer Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño).
From here, we’re led through a series of farcical moments where, rather than simply painting a deck, Ernesto is tasked with providing a listening board to Sean’s thoughts – all this despite the language barrier that divides them. As things get more and more desperate for Sean, he relies on Ernesto as a salve for his own pain.
What the film seems entirely oblivious about is the casual racism and almost perverse infantilizing of both characters in the name of feel-good treacle. Pretty Woman is evoked midway as a kind of distraction, but at its heart, this a film about emotional prostitution, where the wealthy protagonist can blithely get away with nearly anything under a guise of grief and the seemingly inhuman kindness of Ernesto. Sean is a character who seemingly can’t fail. Everyone else in the entire film coddles his every whim and never once calls him on his near sociopathic behavior.
It’s all the more galling, then, that this seemingly lighthearted buddy flick is as oblivious about its effects on others as its central character. The movie is so regressive as to be shocking, yet thanks to its gay central character, it masks itself as somehow leaning progressive. Eschewing hetronormativity does not grant you the ability to be a narcissistic asshole.
It would be one thing if Ernesto’s own journey was painted in anything approaching three dimensions, or if there were real implications (maybe even an argument?) when time after time Sean condones entirely appalling things. This is a film about obsession and guilelessness, but there’s no second level of commentary by the filmmakers other than presenting this as a kind of delightful farce.
Papi Chulo is a putrid, maudlin mess that tries to pass itself off as a fable. It’s lazy, horrid storytelling and the worst kind of offensive, one that sympathetic audiences will simply shrug off.