Irish writer-director John Butler’s comedy and drama Papi Chulo is smarter than it seems, exposing the doublespeak within racial fetishism. Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a Mexican handyman living in Los Angeles, looks nothing like a stereotypical papi chulo. But the movie’s protagonist and his boss, troubled LA weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer), ascribes benevolent qualities to him anyway. The dynamics between what they see in each other as co-workers entering a professionally inappropriate friendship puts into question what we see.
Papi Chulo raises eyebrows within critics and movie fans of color because of its resemblance to Green Book. But this little film, surprisingly or otherwise, has more complex characters than that Academy Award winner. Ernesto and Sean are more than their racial backgrounds or sexual identities although those come into play here. It associates Sean’s whiteness with his desperate toxicity and doesn’t excuse those terrible qualities. Ernesto, on the other hand, reacts accordingly to constantly shifting power dynamics.
Those who have seen this movie and those who will will also notice Bomer and Patiño’s acting skills. Other films misuse Bomer’s looks, relegating him to shallow work, but here he is at his most carefree and vulnerable. We can say the same for Patiño, an expressive actor who evinces the sly subversiveness relate-able to most people of color who have to work and live within a society of volatile whites.
As a director, Butler doesn’t warp the film’s perspective to conform with Sean’s or Ernesto’s. Butler also sells Los Angeles’ similarities and contradictions well. He doesn’t overdo the affluence in Sean’s part of town and the working class nature in Ernesto’s. He also depicts the similarities between the two men and how those similarities aren’t enough. Racial integration, as he shows here, is not easy, but is something everyone should strive for.