Films dealing with grieving often face an uphill battle when an audience feels forced to identify with a character in mourning that they’ve just met. Great filmmakers and actors find something specific in visual terms or in character detail to latch us in, while others end up with less than engaging experiences. Writer-director John Butler (Handsome Devil) gets our attention in its opening scene as we witness a meltdown by gay TV Meteorologist Sean (Matt Bomer) who processes the end of a relationship while on air. Asked by his Station Manager, in a beautifully understated performance by Wendy McLendon-Covey, to take a leave of absence, a jittery Sean takes time out in his now empty hillside show palace.
Bomer, who showed off his gifts in The Normal Heart, really shines here as a man who can’t control his emotions or his motormouth. Sometimes Bomer’s almost perfect features can work against him, but here he taps into a whole host of identifiable traits, making this one of his most accomplished, tricky and lovable performances. Sean has a knack for over-sharing, over-staring, and just plain making people feel uncomfortable. Clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he decides to rid himself of the last vestiges from his ex Carlos by selling a potted tree on his back patio. In doing so, he exposes an unpainted circle on the wooden porch, so off to the hardware store he goes. When he discovers that handyman work and he do not exist in the same universe, he does what many privileged Los Angelenos do and hires an immigrant day laborer in the form of Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño from The Bridge, Weeds, and known to many in L.A. for his role as Bossman from the longstanding stage comedy troupe Chico’s Angels).
With cultural, sexual, and language differences as barriers, the two form an unlikely but beautiful bond. Sean’s frazzled nerves wonderfully plays off of Ernesto’s almost stoic, silent reactions, and soon, Sean forgets about the work at hand and pretty much pays Ernesto to be his pal by taking a boating trip around Echo Park or as his guest to an all gay male party. Because Ernesto can’t speak English and says very little, Sean projects so much onto him that he’s almost like Chauncey Gardiner, the indelible blank slate by Peter Sellers in the great Being There. Patiño, in his first starring role in a film, he’s like the classic silent film star version of Chauncey, showing off an incredible range of emotions while seemingly doing very little. In one of the film’s best scenes, the pair bond over Madonna’s classic “Borderline” while in the back of an Uber, reaching adorable heights with every one of Patiño’s seated dancing moves or Bomer’s ability to finally connect with a human being on a natural level.
A small, independent film, Papi Chulo has its flaws. It has some shaggy storytelling moments where a little more clarity would have sufficed, and some may find this to be another immigrant story as filtered through a white person’s perspective. I strongly disagree as the film offers both mens’ points of view and instead of focusing on sexual orientation or country of birth, the film gives us two men who can both empathize with feelings of loss. As such, it’s a generous, warm, poignant story…and trust me, I hate the word poignant! It implies an almost Hallmark level of sentiment, yet those sentiments exist and they feel earned here.
Bomer keeps things from getting too sickly sweet by presenting a character in almost slapstick levels of crisis. He falls often, gets whacked by objects, and cuts himself on shards of glass with a regularity that borders on insane, but he superbly walks that fine line between comedy and pain with a facade that tells us everything’s OK when the world has clearly crumbled around him. At one point, he takes a huge tumble in front of a large gathering and delivers a monologue filled with so much anxiety and hurt, that I felt like we shouldn’t be eavesdropping on him. Moments later, Patiño contains everything so well until he can’t anymore, defending his new friend with one single, withering line. It’s in this moment that the film finds its true humanity. It’s a little slice of life. It may not change the world, but it makes you feel good about living in it.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Papi Chulo gets a solid 50 out of 50. It features a gay male lead whose sexuality may be the least memorable or interesting thing about him. When I look back on this film, I’ll think about Bomer’s uncanny ability to make the audience feel as uncomfortable in his skin as he does, and I’ll think of Patiño’s grace in embracing his severely flawed friend.
Papi Chulo is currently in limited release in US cinemas.
By Glenn Gaylord