At the start of John Butler’s otherwise ebullient comedy “Papi Chulo,” the forecast is hardly sunny when Sean (Matthew Bomer) first goes back to work as a weatherman at “Good Morning Los Angeles,” with grey skies to be seen for miles at the Eagle Rock hillside home he used to share with his partner Carlos, who’s been gone for months. The job would seem to offer a respite from getting rid of the last of Carlos’ things, which involves clearing away a tree that sits on the deck, and even after removing that, a discoloration remains, so being anywhere else is appealing, even if it comes with the unfortunate requirement that he be chipper at all times. When the inevitable viral meltdown comes – on live TV no less, Sean is forced back home by his boss (Wendi McLendon Covey), looking at the white spot on his blue deck as if staring into the void.
Butler, who last directed the charming “Handsome Devil,” may find Sean at his lowest low, but he doesn’t let him linger there for much time, following him down to Eagle Rock Lumber to get some paint and getting a lot more than he bargained for when he picks up a day laborer named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) outside the store to help him do the job. Sean decides relatively quickly that this stranger will become his new best friend, wanting to talk to no one else he actually knows – or more important, knows him enough to bring up Carlos – and while the premise is full of potential landmines, Butler only winds up igniting explosive laughs as he exposes how the disconnect the weatherman has had from the real world happened long before Carlos entered or exited the picture. With nothing but time, Sean thinks nothing of expanding Ernesto’s duties from painting the deck to include going boating with him in Echo Park and hiking in Runyon Canyon, and without a common language to speak, Ernesto finds there is no easy way to object and as long as money changes hands at the end of the day, the friendship quite literally pays dividends.
Although the two characters never actually share a real connection, despite finally having a breakthrough when they both know the lyrics to Madonna’s “Borderline” when it comes on the radio, Bomer and Patiño have a strong comic chemistry together with the former trading on his matinee idol looks to play the aloof Angeleno perfectly while the latter proving to be a Stan Laurel-level straight man to cut back to for priceless reactions. But “Papi Chulo” has another gear in it, and though one particular third act revelation is unlikely to surprise as much as the filmmakers seem to think it does, the comedy largely mixes effortlessly with the drama to convey that Sean isn’t about to change anything with just a new coat of paint. Visiting Ernesto in Pico Rivera is a start, but when Sean starts to do the hard work of understanding how he got to where he is by finally looking outside himself, the strength of Butler’s script and Bomer’s performance really come into focus as the film packs an emotional punch with neither overplaying their hand.
Besides waiting to see when Sean might be able to breathe again, “Papi Chulo” is refreshing both in being unapologetically gay and in its depiction of a multicultural Los Angeles where casual racism exists and empathy can be misplaced, but people generally try to do right by one another. Despite telling a story of heartbreak, there’s never a doubt about the love Butler has for everyone and every place on screen and it can’t help but be infectious, starting with the removal of a tree that allows for so much more to bloom in its place.
“Papi Chulo” will next play at the London Film Festival on October 12th at the Vue Leicester Square, October 13th at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road Theater, and October 20th at the Rich Mix Cinema.