Cinema Review: John Butler’s Papi Chulo

Posted June 4, 2019 in Cinema Reviews

NCH – 25 sep-3 oct-22 Desktop

Director: John Butler

Talent: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patino

Released: 7 June

“I’m not really crazy. I’ll confess I am going through a rough patch. My-ex has been gone for six months now and I’ll have to admit I’m not good at being alone. I never have been. Feels good to talk.”

LA weatherman Sean unloads his anguish to Ernesto, his unwitting Mexican help, in John Butler’s charming new feature.

Sean, a weatherman in LA, is going through a rough patch. Unable to shake the grief resulting from a breakup, he is overcome on air, sobbing uncontrollably. Despite his insistence that he was just having gastric problems  – not the brightest of chaps it’d appear – his boss tells him to take some time off to get better. Sean enlists the help of a Mexican migrant labourer, Ernesto, to paint his deck, as the removal of a potted plant has left an unpainted round patch (which Sean identifies as a ‘vicious circle,’ helpfully force-feeding the audience some symbolism). Upon being told by his friends that he needs more human interaction, Sean uses Ernesto as a sort of mute therapist, calling him a good listener, though he speaks no English. Soon, Sean is less interested in the deck being painted and more concerned about going on outings with poor beleaguered Ernesto, and doesn’t correct people who mistake them for a ‘cute couple’. And things will eventually come to a head when Sean brings him along to an upscale party.

No, the preceding plot breakdown is not detailing a new, homo-erotic psychological thriller, for this is supposed to be one of those stirring, poignant comic-dramas that makes you think: “hmm, wouldn’t it be great if we could all just try to understand each other a little bit more.” Sean isn’t a bunny-boiler, but a wounded soul, whose increasingly demented efforts to connect with Ernesto aren’t highly exploitative, but the consequence of being unable to move on from a past love.

“Ease up with all the lazy assumptions,” Sean gallantly advises a passerby who jests that our improbable duo have a “Driving Miss Daisy thing going on”. But the irreverent stranger is not the only one making assumptions – not once does Sean ease up on the idea that he can use Ernesto in this way. The assumption that director John Butler has made is that an audience would invest in a character with his head this far up his own arse. Our sympathy is limited because Sean is fully aware of the game he’s playing of trying to re-enact his old relationship.

Were this a darker, more ambiguous film, that sympathy wouldn’t be needed, but it’s clear that that is precisely what’s being sought when, later on, we are made to endure heavy scenes of Sean unravelling, coming to terms with his past loss. This film is uncynical to a fault. The central premise is actually interesting, but the film is overly concerned with not offending anyone, with Sean being simply misguided, yet, ultimately harmless and Ernesto unrealistically kind and understanding of Sean’s plight – Ernesto is made something of a benevolent blank. Unfortunately, the tonal deafness resulting from this mixture of earnestness and implausibility disqualifies Papi Chulo from being a success, unlike Butler’s superior, previous effort, Handsome Devil.

On the plus side, the film is trying new things, and is never really boring. It’s nice to see a film where the character’s sexual orientation isn’t the source of great anguish but just a feature, and there are some enjoyable satirical moments. Also, Bomer is a great actor, his frozen smile, always threatening to crack into something more perturbed.

An interesting idea, scuppered by good intentions. It would’ve worked better as much darker comedy that didn’t strive to be so redemptive. That said, Butler is still one to look out for.

Words: Rory Kiberd

Illustration: Meagan Hyland


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