“Papi Chulo” doesn’t start with much promise.
The idea of a wealthy gay Angelino bonding with a Latino laborer he hires to do some painting for him feels cloying, and the situations that spin out of that are generally eye-rollers.
Casting the good-looking Matt Bomer, of the “Will & Grace” revival and “Magic Mike,” as an LA TV weatherman isn’t the slam dunk you’d expect, because he doesn’t carry himself on the dated, cheap “local TV in the ’80s” newscast set like anybody who could hold such a job in any market outside of say, Williston, North Dakota.
But give it time — a LOT of run time — and Irish writer-director John Butler’s little dramedy finds its feet and eventually, its heart.
This run of the mill culture-clash comedy set in the most tiresomely over-filmed city on Earth works. Again, eventually.
Bomer plays Sean, who breaks down in mid weathercast on live TV. His boss (Wendi McLendon-Covey of “The Goldbergs”) and co-workers are sympathetic. They put him on “garden leave,” give him time to get it together.
“The viewers saw tears. That is VERY distressing to them.”
Sean is reeling from the end of a relationship. He’s compulsively calling and leaving voice-mails for Carlos, his ex. Selling the potted tree Carlos once gave him all but wipes their slate clean. He hopes.
But darn it, the pot left an unpainted circle on his wooden deck. And he’s utterly inept at painting over it. Time to get a professional.
That’s how he meets Ernesto, one of the day laborers who gather in the parking lot of the lumber/hardware store, picking up handyman jobs that pay in cash.
Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) speaks no English, and Sean only speaks what I call “survival Spanglish” — just enough to cover the basics.
“Hablo un poquito,” he admits. But “$20 an hour” they both understand. And when they get to Sean’s house, “Mas de u dia” gets through, too.
Ernesto will sand, clean and then paint the deck, and that’s going to take a few days.
But what starts as a simple transaction rapidly morphs into an awkward, boundaries-blurring “relationship.” Sean wants to feed Ernesto, constantly interrupts him to offer drinks. Sean cuts the days short.
“Es tarde,” he says. And next thing Ernesto knows, he’s being driven to stores, to a lake where Sean insists they go rowing (Ernesto takes the oars), for a hike.
All of which Sean fills with endless babble about Carlos, himself, the hole in his life without that relationship, none of which Ernesto understands.
“You think I’m crazy, right? Loco? I confess, I am going through a rough patch.”
It’s a “talking cure,” a confessional. And even though Ernesto doesn’t understand Sean’s soliloquies, and looks a lot like the late Mel Blanc, Sean senses a connection.
He can’t understand what Ernest says when he calls his wife (Elena Campbell-Martinez).
“I’m rowing this gringo,” he tells her (in Spanish, with English subtitles), or “”$200 for a walk in the sunshine.” She seems to figure out what’s going on here in a flash.
Passersby are more insulting.
“You guys have a ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ thing going on, here.”
Butler goes about as far with this as he can, adding the odd moment of California’s “Invisible Mexicans” casual racism.
Ernesto shrugs at any Hispanic person he meets, just shrugging at the odd situation he finds himself in.
“Aye, gringos,” is all he can say, and to the right person, that’s all he needs to say.
The light sprinkling of laughs spring from a gay cocktail party he drags Ernesto to.
“We met at the hardware store!”
“I get it. Nobody wants to say they met on Grindr!”
Butler doesn’t reach for laughs, and that’s a serious shortcoming in “Papi Chulo.” The guys have a Madonna sing along to the radio moment in the Lyft ride home from that party. Guess the song. Try. Come on.
Suffice it to say that it’s a little too “on the nose,” which you could say about the entire film.
The performances present an engaging contrast, with Bomer growing on you as you start to appreciate what’s broken in Sean, and Patiño’s deadpan shrug evolving into something more compassionate.
But the third act, which brings everything that’s going on here to a head, atones for the cliches, stereotypes and limp jokes of the first two. Most of them, anyway.
Now that Butler’s over the novelty of getting to make a movie in Hollywood (this was made with Irish financing), I look forward to his next picture, which hopefully will be more like “Handsome Devil,” his previous film — Irish.
God knows we’ve all seen enough movies set and filmed in LA to last many lifetimes.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez,Wendi McLendon-Covey
Credits: Written and directed by John Butler. A Blue Fox release.
Running time: 1:38