Wednesday 10 October 2018

PAPI CHULO - London Film Festival review

One of the sweetest and most peculiar films of the festival, Papi Chulo stars Matt Bomer as Sean, a local weather man who, when forced to take some time off work by his employers to deal with his emotional issues, befriends Ernesto (Alejandro Patino), the Mexican day worker he hires to help repaint his deck. Deciding to leave the work till another time, Sean takes Ernesto on day trips, rowing across a lake or hiking in the hills, much to the befuddlement of Ernesto.

A simple man looking to provide for his family, Ernesto's story is a familiar one. An immigrant, he waits outside the hardware stores along with other workers, waiting to be picked up and used by the upper middle classes as cheap manual labour. It's here that after an on air sobbing fit that required him to take a leave of absence, Sean picks up some paint from the store and Ernesto to help do the work, and either due to his desire to be liked or white liberal guilt, he over-compensates by offering Ernesto drinks and buying him lunch in a manner that makes Ernesto uncomfortable. Sean, a successful gay man with a good career, on the surface lives a drastically different life to Ernesto, but they eventually find some sort of bond despite their different lifestyles.

Matt Bomer has always been a likeable actor, clearly born to play Superman on screen but never given the chance to do so (although he did voice him in the animated Superman: Unbound). Playing man going through an emotional breakdown and mourning the loss of his relationship with boyfriend Carlos, he tries to hold on to the things he holds dearly, calling Carlos's cellphone to leave him messages. It's a bold, moving, deeply tragic but comedic performance from Bomer.

There's a whole heap of things this film comments on. Firstly, the use of cheap labour from across the border by successful white urbanites is nothing new, but here, as Sean uses Ernesto as his sounding board and stand-in therapist he takes things to a whole new arena. After all, $20 an hour is cheaper than hiring an actual therapist. There's also something deeply psychological about Sean hiring a Mexican worker to essentially act as a stand in boyfriend in place of his former beau, Carlos. Freud would have a field day with Sean's psyche. Although it appears that social companionship is Sean's aim, there is something about the curb-side appropriation of a worker that has echoes of prostitution, and this does seem to be a particular commentary on a familiar LA tradition. Just a reminder that this is a comedy at heart, but one that knows there is an inherent issue in it subject matter.

Alejandro Patino is fantastic of Ernesto, finding the balance between grateful employee and passive acceptance that, despite the odd scenarios he keeps finding himself in with Sean, at least he's earning money. As the story goes on, it's also clear that Ernesto is starting to enjoy himself in this bizarre Pretty Woman arrangement, without the sex, of course. There's a comedy of awkwardness between this new odd couple that doesn't go unnoticed by onlookers, pointing out that they have "a Driving Miss Daisy thing going on", which only makes Sean's over-compensation spike more. In one particular scene, Ernesto's wife gets to meet the strange American man that's been paying for her husband's company, and although the set up is one born of tragic desperation, at least she's able to see the funny side of things.

The success of this film rests solely on the charm of Matt Bomer and his interactions with Ernesto. As an unlikely pairing as they may be, the friendship they develop is incredibly sweet. One of the film's standout scenes sees Sean and Ernesto break the language barrier, riding in a taxi home singing along to Madonna's Borderline, the joy of the song and the relevance of the title not lost on either of them.

An unconventional bromance with terrific performances from Bomer and Patino, Papi Chulo is a film that may have been made on a low budget, but manages to succeed by getting its characters right, surpassing any budgetary limitations with genuine heart.


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