Many films revolving around loneliness are so often dark and twisted, with many depicting someone experiencing this prevalent human feeling as partially psychotic. This approach has made for some classic movies but presents a fantastical narrative about loneliness, one that fails to translate into reality accurately. John Butler’s “Papi Chulo” takes us away from this to somewhere refreshingly new.
Set in ever sunny Los Angles, we follow TV weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer) who, after a bad break up and being forced to take time off work, finds himself almost entirely alone within his hillside home. After getting rid of a tree left by his ex-boyfriend on the deck, it quickly becomes apparent that the entire space needs repainting. Knowing he cannot do it himself, Sean hires Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a 50-year-old Latino family man to paint it for him. Desperately needing a friend, Sean goes on to ignore the need to repaint and begins paying Ernesto to travel around LA with him in order to help cope with his loneliness.
There is a moment in “Papi Chulo” where the two leads talk about how marriage, and relationships in general, are like Ernesto’s estimate for how long it will take to paint the deck, they take more than one day. This scene takes place on a hiking trail in LA where the city looks beautiful below them, and Ernesto is struck by it all, especially since he is paid to be here. As they talk, Sean can only half understand Ernesto due to the language barrier, yet we can tell that the wisdom the older man is granting him is making it through by transcending their cultural differences.
All of this together makes for a poignant scene that perfectly encompasses Butler’s script. At points, it is a comedic look at culture shock, but at its core, it is about Sean, a lonely man who needs a friend, and in this moment, he begins to find one.
In his depiction of loneliness, Butler has formed it as an unassuming cruel wave we see wash over Sean throughout and slowly wears him down to his lowest. It is a wonderfully human take on feeling alone, one which allows for Sean to genuinely grow as a person and does not leave him emotionally stunted. Yes, it may be altogether simplistic that all Sean needs to ‘cure’ his loneliness is a new friend, but the charm between the pair makes it believable and satisfying. Dehumanising Sean in order to make the story more elaborate would have been a disaster, he is not that kind of character, nor would any character like that suit this setting. Rather, he is a troubled man haunted by his past relationships, and this film’s biggest strength is that it says feeling this way is okay.
Boomer and Patiño are brilliant together. They make for an instantly entertaining mismatched duo, one that charms throughout as their friendship grows. Boomer delivers a surprisingly powerful performance, managing to break off from the comedy in an instant and go deep into the drama of loneliness. At times it is stunning how well he displays Sean’s distress and particularly how he manages to make it convincingly worsen. In the emotionally intense final 20 minutes, he shines even brighter and makes himself well worthy of praise.
Alongside him, Patiño makes for the perfect partner. His performance required him to hit a very different pitch, and he nails it. There is no real conflict within the Ernesto character; he thought he was getting paid to paint a deck but was dragged along this journey instead. So with this performance, it is the kindness he illustrates, as well as the few moments of wonder he captures just by gazing around the sights he has never seen before, that are the most potent aspects and see Patiño underplay himself to an excellent performance. Together they firm themselves as the heart and soul of this story, which was crucial to get right for everything to work as well as it does.
Anything set in LA always has an inherently picturesque vibe to it. “Papi Chulo” is no different, with it using the constant sunshine to bask its characters in something otherworldly. There is a strange conflict that arises seeing Sean be so troubled yet continuously bathed in sunshine. For the most part, it makes for a significant affirmation telling us anyone can be lonely, even the wealthy weatherman on TV. Outside of this, it does not do much for the story, and at times can be slightly jarring.
However, all in all, Cinematographer Cathal Watters has done a reliable job capturing the famous city, even managing to briefly capture it in the rain for some gorgeous shots. It is a view of LA we have seen many times before yet still feels ageless, which is a testament to everyone who pulls it off. Above all else, Watters and Butler did not try to re-invent the wheel from their side of the camera, and it worked actively in their favour in this instance. Sometimes a beautiful city is enough, and they knew it was here.
“Papi Chulo” is a charming, well-acted film about a lonely man and the only person he could find to be his friend. The refreshing depiction of feeling alone may not break as much new ground as it could have, but it makes for a pleasantly heart-warming ride.
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