Papi Chulo

TIFF Journal: Papi Chulo

Papi Chulo

Movie Rating:


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.


  1. River

    I know art is subjective, but I feel we may have watched two different movies. I really enjoyed this film – I really did not have all these issues with it that you seemed to.

  2. Marcus Maher

    Hey Jason, well said. As an Irishman John Butler’s kindergarten school level of emotion permeates through all of his mediocre output and I’m not saying this to moan and bitch, his films are a reflection of him, gay, so called progressive in his political leanings which ticks every identity politics quota. His films are him as he’s obviously not lived the experiences he so desperately wants to depict, hence why his films come across as vapid and hollow. We in Ireland have far better filmmakers than him.

  3. David Perry

    I find it notable that the reviews that pan this film, denouncing it as “racist”, are all by white, middle-class liberal males. Haven’t found a review by a Latino (oh, sorry, am I supposed to say “Latinx”?!?!) writer yet.

    I watched it from the POV as someone with Latin American connections and I can tell you we were slapping our thighs throughout. Ernesto, for us, was most definitely the main character. His acerbic asides (which seem to have been largely missed by the white reviewers) were absolutely classic and served to really highlight just how messed up the character of Sean was (and the actor playing Sean did a magnificent job doing that). If that made middle-class white (especially North American white) viewers uncomfortable then that’s exactly the point. There’s a point when Sean asks Ernesto “Do you think LA is haunted?” To white viewers, it probably came across as an attempt by the director to make a deep point, but Spanish-speaking viewers would have heard Ernesto’s exasperated response (it wasn’t subtitled) of “I don’t know what that is”. Sean assumes Ernesto agreed with him and keeps talking vacuously.

    Perhaps, Mr Gorber, it was just too nuanced for you to write anything besides a polemic in response.

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