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There was much to admire in John Butler’s previous film, Handsome Devil, a sweet and clever comedy about finding friends in unlikely places.
Papi Chulo, the director’s third feature, is a variation on that same theme. But we are no longer in an Irish boarding school, we’re in sunny Los Angeles. This new film also deals with older characters – and it’s a chance for Butler to tell a story about adults starting over, rather than kids starting out.
Sean (Matt Bomer) looks like the typical slick American TV weatherman. He’s perfectly preened with whiter-than-white teeth and a sharp suit. Sean, as we see him in the earliest moments of Papi Chulo appears to be the smoothest of smooth operators. But, in the first of many, many instances, Butler’s film reminds us that appearances, are more often than not, deceptive.
The action begins mid-news-broadcast as Sean presents viewers with an update on a months-long heatwave in the LA area. During the broadcast, he becomes increasingly unable to work from the teleprompter and begins heaving and sobbing.
The camera crew don’t know where to look. Frenzied producers swear as they attempt to salvage the segment. Butler cuts between the “in-camera” broadcast and behind the scenes. Sean looks even more lost against a green-screen backdrop that a moment ago showed a heat map of the local area.
When the dust settles he’s sent home on gardening leave. The station’s bosses worry that Sean’s outburst may have made viewers uncomfortable.
In these early moments, it’s only natural to crack a smile at Sean’s awkward outburst. The situation is not on the same level as say, Howard Beale’s meltdown in Network. These kinds of bloopers have now been codified. They appear on our Facebook feeds, our Twitter timelines and in YouTube “fail” compilations.
After the incident and in the scenes that follow, a pattern emerges for Sean. He is not a good listener, and is reluctant to take advice from others. Insisting that he’s fine, he uses the time off work only to appease his boss and to get his coworker Susan (the very funny, but under-utilised, D’Arcy Carden) off his back. When Sean returns home to his magnificently appointed hillside home, more of the puzzle falls into place.
Sean lives alone. But up until recently he shared his now mostly empty house with his partner Carlos. All that remains of Carlos is a large potted tree on the deck. Removing the tree reveals a shabby paint job, which is typical of Carlos, according to Sean.
Sean, it is revealed, is not a handy guy. After one amusing failed attempt to retouch the paintwork, he endeavours to find someone else to finish what Carlos started. Enter Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), the quiet and hardworking handyman who picks up where Carlos left off in more ways than one.
Sean’s life without Carlos is shown to be desperate. He drinks during the day, calls Carlos’ cell phone again and again, and at night a comic-tragic scene in a strip club sees Sean peeling the labels off of beer bottles with his back turned to the gyrating bodies only metres away. Upon leaving the strip club he passes out in the parking lot.
In other sequences, Butler gets a lot of use out of Sean’s empty home. Cathal Watters’ cinematography often puts Sean at the edge or the centre of the frame. He’s dwarfed by the house and the landscape outside, tiny and insignificant among the remnants of his former life.
Sean’s friends are aware of his pain, encouraging him to talk about his feelings, or to go out and meet new people. Sean, ever pragmatic – or more likely in an attempt at appeasement and avoidance – sees Ernesto as a solution to his people problem.
Ernesto’s stint as a painter lasts about a day, and then Sean is hiring this portly, moustachioed fifty-something to take a rowboat out on a lake, or hike a popular mountain trail. Sean’s lack of Spanish and Ernesto’s lack of English mean that communication is essentially one-sided and this, it turns out, is just what Sean needs to open up about his feelings post-Carlos.
With these sequences we move into a familiar Butler groove, that of the sitcom duo. Ernesto and Sean could not be more different: short and tall, skinny and broad, quiet and chatty, they’re Felix and Oscar with a language barrier.
The format may prompt laughs but what comes through more than that is a quiet sense of understanding and commonality between the two men. Ernesto’s wife has misgivings and his day-labourer cronies outside the hardware store tease him, but Ernesto seems to sense Sean’s pain, even if he doesn’t really understand him.
In the hiking scene, Sean points to two men holding hands on the trail. He asks Ernesto “What do you call them?” “Maricón,” says Ernesto, nodding.
Even as he’s brushing up against Ernesto’s conservative values, Sean sees positivity in the companionship. For the rest of the hike he talks to Ernesto about his own internalised homophobia, the sense of guilt he carries because of his sexuality, and his attraction to older, married men.
The humour that comes from this sequence is at Ernesto’s expense. He nods along happily with Sean, not realising that his casual homophobia has brought on some real soul searching in his employer.
With Ernesto, Sean is his best self, but he’s unsure what to do with their friendship. Similarly, Ernesto plays it cool to his wife Linda. He waves away her misgivings: “Not everyone finds my body as irresistible as you my love.”
Pretty Woman is mentioned as a shorthand for Sean and Ernesto’s relationship (perhaps Papi Chulo, translated as “Handsome Daddy” is a play on this line?) The film avoids taking a sinister detour into Vertigo territory, but Butler has fun with this possibility.
Butler follows this well-worn plot, unlikely friends that become real friends, to its logical conclusion. Of course, there are breakups and makeups along the way.
And as with Sean’s YouTube-worthy weather report fail, we’ve seen this kind of film before. What’s worth noting is how Butler manages to balance the schmaltz and cheese inherent to this format with a heartwarming, and heartbreaking, truthfulness.
Take how, throughout the film, the Los Angeles heatwave has served as an ever-present manifestation of Sean’s pain. By the end of the story, rain clouds have opened up, and the rain clears the air and marks a fresh start for Sean.
The imagery is heavy-handed, but under Butler’s direction it feels as comforting and light as a down duvet. It’s bold and big and a little obvious but there’s something behind it all.
As such, the BIG emotions on display here feel genuine. It’s movie magic but it’s also, not. This is human, humane filmmaking that cares a great deal about its characters.