UPDATE: “Papi Chulo” is available on DVD November 5.
Given the number of films that are shot on location in Los Angeles, there’s an entire cinematic sub-genre of movies that can be called “quintessentially LA.”
That might seem an overstatement, made from a standpoint of bias by someone who lives, loves and works here. After all, these movies are obviously widely varied in terms of content, theme, tone, or any other aspect that might otherwise connect them, beyond the commonality of their setting. But as any Angeleno will tell you, the location itself exerts such a palpable influence over what ends up on the screen that movies made in their city are as unmistakably bound together as if they were all telling different parts of the same story.
In a way, of course, they are. Los Angeles — despite the annoyingly persistent notion in popular imagination that it’s a place without character, culture or depth — is one of the world’s great cities, and, like all such places, it possesses an intangible presence that affects everything taking place within its borders; it becomes an immutable condition of the script, a universe unto itself reflected by all the characters who inhabit it. Whether you’re watching self-delusional film star Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” perma-stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” or the two transgender sex workers of “Tangerine,” you know the City of Angels is in their DNA.
This is great for the locals; we relish movies that reflect our city back to us, we recognize all the sights and we feel as if we know all the characters. For those that live outside our sunny little bubble on the Left Coast, however, one has to wonder if such films sometimes feel like a look into an alien and not-very-relatable world.
Take, for instance, “Papi Chulo,” a new film set for release in June that stars Matt Bomer as a TV weatherman who strikes up an unlikely relationship with a Mexican day laborer. Written and directed by John Butler, it centers on an affluent gay semi-celebrity who pretends to be someone else when recognized and a middle-aged migrant worker with limited English who is savvy enough to hold his own at a swanky party in the Hollywood Hills — two people who might easily turn up in an Angeleno’s everyday life without being given a second thought, but who, for most everyone else, might seem not only unfamiliar but implausible.
In the film, Bomer’s character, Sean, is struggling with his newly-single status. He spends lonely nights in his elegant but empty house, listening to coyotes howl in the distance and leaving yet another unanswered voicemail on his former partner’s phone. Placed on leave by his TV station after an on-air breakdown in which his usual upbeat demeanor temporarily crumbles into tears, he sets about trying to remove the traces of his ex from his home, and hires a worker named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) in front of his neighborhood hardware store to help him paint his deck. Attempting to strike up a friendship, Sean starts opening up about himself and prods Ernesto to do the same despite the language gap between them. Before long, their work arrangement progresses to paid outings like boating in Echo Park and hiking in Runyon Canyon; Ernesto’s friends and family begin to tease him about the nature of his relationship with this new employer — and he begins to think they may be right.
There’s a lot packed into the situation described by that brief synopsis. The bringing together of these two characters from different worlds invites reflection on class, ethnicity and cultural attitudes toward sexuality. There’s lots of room for social satire about such contemporary pressure points as accidental racism, hipster gentrification, economic disparity, and white entitlement; yet as Sean reaches across all divides for a connection that can help him mend his broken heart, the story is able to open up into an exploration of the healing power of kindness and empathy.
For the first two-thirds, “Papi Chulo” works well on all those fronts. As the bromance between its two lead characters blossoms, they develop a precarious chemistry together that is both surprising and delightful. It’s a gentle comedy, but they give you laugh-out-loud moments that catch you off guard, and you find yourself more engaged by their uncertain, nebulously defined relationship than you think you should be.
A lot of that comes from the performances of the two actors. Bomer, whose ridiculously good looks often make one underestimate his acting chops, makes the potentially vacuous Sean into an endearing soul even in the moments where his privilege and his obsessions push him to the point of painful and humiliating faux pas; Patiño, in a performance that is both gloriously expressive and inscrutably subtle, transcends the risk of playing a character that could be perceived as expressing a stereotype of the wise Latino elder by turning Ernesto into the emotional center of the movie. Together, these two make us wish for more screen time devoted to their rapport.
It’s only in the film’s third act, when their friendship is put at risk by Sean’s refusal to deal with the grief over his lost relationship, that things lose their luster, a little. Without giving away too much, late-in-the-game revelations take the story into darker and more complex territory than it can adequately support, and the more-or-less definitive resolution the film devises for its characters feels a little rushed and hollow. That’s not enough to erase the fun of their earlier scenes, nor even to make us like them less in the end, but it does leave us feeling less uplifted than we were meant to feel — and also, perhaps, less satisfied.
Still, for LA audiences, such minor quibbles are nothing compared to a chance to see their glorious city on the big screen, and this film offers plenty of those; and for LGBTQ folk, it seems important to recognize that it’s also one of those rare occasions when a gay character is not only the leading role in a movie, but is actually played by a gay actor.
As for the rest of the world, “Papi Chulo” might well feel as inaccessible as the bubble they perceive us Angelenos to live in. Fortunately, even if it’s not perfect, it’s good enough that it may be able to bridge that gap for them as well as it bridges the one between its two mismatched buddies.