There’s a classic genre: man has a public meltdown, goes into seclusion, and gradually grapples with his depression. Papi Chulo takes this idea and posits: what if the depressed man was gay? Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer for a similar concept, and so writer-director John Butler (Handsome Devil) dares to dream. Papi Chulo is a sweet but often painful examination of one man’s life behind his impossibly cheery facade.
After weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer, TV’s Doom Patrol) begins to sob on air, he is placed on indefinite gardening leave. Desperate for something to do around the house, and lonely at that, he hires middle-aged immigrant painter Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) to paint his deck. Unwilling to part with Ernesto too soon, Sean keeps picking him up from the hardware store and takes him for boat rides, hikes and social outings.
This movie is ostensibly a two hander but, by design, the majority of the dialogue goes to Sean. Bomer is a slightly off-putting screen presence, with a face that looks slightly too perfect to be real. The man’s need to be needed, to be helpful, to accommodate, is uncomfortable in its familiarity. Papi Chulo never makes the mistake of framing its story as that of a man who has too much money for his own good, but rather about a man cast adrift from his well-worn life and entirely unsure what to do about it.
Yet Butler never hesitates to illustrate that his scenario is filled with people who care about Sean, who want to help him. He has his reasons for seeking out Ernesto, but the film becomes clinical as we realise that Sean is ignoring and discounting all of the hands offering to pull him out of the hole that he has found himself in. It’s realistic, but that makes it no less frustrating.
Papi Chulo is about Sean, and there are only rare glimpses into the interiority of Ernesto. Only when Ernesto speaks to other Spanish speakers are the audience given subtitles; when he answers Sean’s conversational gambits, we have to merely guess at his responses. This is an othering of the (presumably monolingual) audience, just as Sean consistently others Ernesto. Unlike Sean, however, we care about the man himself, not just what he represents. That we can never really know Ernesto, and what he wants beyond $200 a day, is the failure of Papi Chulo’s imagination: Ernesto is a support rather than his own man. There’s a reason that the film’s most transcendent scene is likely its most expensive: when “Borderline” plays, Ernesto and Sean are genuinely communicating for the first — perhaps only — time.
Butler is an Irish filmmaker, and his work to date has been set in Ireland; he has brought Cathal Watters (TV’s Peaky Blinders) across with him to shoot the film. Papi Chulo is set in one of the most traditionally sunny places on Earth, and lens flare characterises much of the film to the point that you’re tempted to shield your eyes. LA looks almost like a foreign planet, large and lonely. The script and cinematography really labour the metaphorical power of weather in a place where the sun almost always shines. Is there a storm on the horizon? The weather reports interspersed throughout the film tell us that yes indeed — and wouldn’t it be convenient if it broke at a significant time in Sean’s story arc? Yes, it would. The movie mostly isn’t so clumsy, but when Butler wants to drive a point home he’s not exactly subtle about it.
Papi Chulo is a character study with a singular focus. Matt Bomer’s otherworldliness sells the lonely enthusiasm of his lead, but the film treats his offsider as almost as much of an accessory as the character himself. There is a tenderness and a quiet tragedy to Papi Chulo; it has the gentle touch that characterises many softer-edged independent films, even if it’s a tourist in its own city.
Papi Chulo is screening in Australia as part of the Sydney Film Festival, between June 5 and June 16, 2019.
Directed by: John Butler.
Starring: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patino, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Wendi McLendon-Covey and D’Arcy Carden.