GFF 2019: Matt Bomer is wonderfully affecting in a feel-good tale centring on an unlikely friendship
'It never rains in Southern California…it pours,' goes the refrain in Albert Hammond's song, repeatedly played in the car of troubled LA weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer) in Irish director John Butler's smart comedy drama. The term 'papi chulo' means 'pimp daddy', but Butler's latest film, like his last, 2016's Handsome Devil, is less about cold sexual transactions than feel-good interaction.
After a televised meltdown leaves him in tears, Sean faces an enforced holiday while his bosses hope that his embarrassing YouTube clip doesn't open the floodgates to unwanted viral attention. A spot of home-improving DIY doesn't quite fill up Sean's free time, and he ends up paying for the services of Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), an unemployed local handyman. Sean is recovering from an abruptly ended gay relationship, and he finds Ernesto a willing companion for hikes and boating trips, even though he has a wife and family. The two men come to share an unlikely friendship that runs defiantly against the grain of their entrenched personal development.
On the surface, Papi Chulo might resemble Green Book's gamey cross-racial civics lesson, yet Butler defuses cliché with keen observation, not only in terms of Sean's sense of loneliness, but regarding Ernesto's guilt about his own duplicity. Both men have something to offer, plus something the other man needs, but their tentative relationship has to be unrequited. It's to Butler's credit as writer and director that when the resolution arrives, it feels satisfying, earned and uncontrived.
If Patiño does a nice job of playing down Ernesto's inner conflict, it's Bomer who carries the film with a wonderfully affecting turn that has little of his Magic Mike bravado, instead is far richer in terms of sensitivity and vulnerability. Papi Chulo's delicate evocation of chance friendships should make the tears flow easily.
Screening on Thu 21 and Fri 22 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.