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'Chasing Papi,' & Beckoning A Latino Audience…Cheesy? Stars Unapologetic…Couldn't Be Dumber

'Chasing Papi,' & Beckoning A Latino Audience

By Sharon Waxman

April 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Washington Post Staff Writer. All rights reserved.

A raucous new low-budget, high-concept comedy may change the way Hollywood looks at movies for Latino audiences.

It may persuade the movie industry to make them.

"Chasing Papi," opening Wednesday in Washington, is a first of its kind for Hollywood: a glossy, marketing-driven English-language film with stars from the Spanish-speaking world, aimed at the heretofore-ignored Hispanic audience. The $10 million film about three women chasing the same man was made by 20th Century Fox, but studios all over town will be carefully watching its performance to see whether the underserved Latino audience will respond.

"We've always known that Hispanic Americans were very heavy moviegoers," says Pam Levine, the head of marketing at Fox. "They're a critical audience for us on many movies. They see a lot of comedy and action films, and they go in multigenerational groups. We wanted to see what would happen if we concentrated all our efforts and resources to bring it as an event just for them."

For long-struggling Latinos in Hollywood, "Chasing Papi" is a sign of hope that Hollywood may be waking up to the reality that Hispanics are poised to become the largest ethnic minority in the country.

Hollywood discovered a middle-class African American audience in the mid-1990s, and the major studios now churn out a dozen or more movies a year just for that public, whether "Juwanna Mann" or "Soul Food" or "Barbershop."

But the studios have no such slate for the Latino audience, although there have been a handful of Latino-themed art house films like "Empire" and "Real Women Have Curves." For several years activists have argued that Hollywood has been ignoring a huge potential source of revenue.

"Hollywood is finally coming to the party," notes Lisa Navarette, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit advocacy group. "They're looking at the demographics and seeing this audience out there that it hasn't paid a lot of attention to."

According to the 2000 Census, Hispanics now constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population. Half of that population is younger than 26 -- compared to a median age of 36 in the general population -- and 40 percent is under 18. In the youth-oriented movie industry, that is no small matter.

Furthermore Hispanics, like African Americans, spend more per capita on the box office than does the general public, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Says Navarette: "If you don't serve this market, you're losing out on tens of millions of potential consumers."

That is probably not true, as Latinos have demonstrated that they will pay to see movies that don't feature Latino characters or story lines. The question posed by "Chasing Papi" is: Will they pay to see movies that do?

The movie's director, Linda Mendoza, feels confident that they will. "My goal was to make an old-fashioned, feel-good Hollywood movie with Latin characters," she says. "Most movies with Latinos are stereotypical -- maids, gardeners, gang-bangers, drug lords. It's very rare when we get to step outside that and be something else."

Mendoza, who grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Detroit, says she was tired of movies that depicted the noble struggle of working-class Hispanics. She says that was the reason she turned down an offer to direct last year's art house hit "Real Women Have Curves."

" 'Papi,' " she says, "is a first in that it's not about the struggle, some hard-luck story like 'Mi Familia' or 'Selena.' I didn't want to patronize our ethnicity. This movie could have been about anybody -- Asians, African Americans. It could be any three girls going after the same guy."

Or, as Navarette puts it: "I don't want to see another movie about a boxer."

Still, as movies go, "Chasing Papi" is not much to fuss about, a thinly plotted story about three women (straight from Central Casting: a Charo look-alike, a spoiled rich girl and a lawyer) who discover they're in love with the same man.

After various farcical high jinks, the ladies discover -- in true Hollywood style -- that they're better off without him. There's a catchy salsa-laden soundtrack and -- here's a surprise -- even a cute little dog.

The studio cast well-known actors and media personalities from across Latin America to bridge the cultural differences within the Spanish-speaking community. Eduardo Verastegui, a Mexican soap star and former pop singer, plays the lovable three-timing Papi. Sofia Vergara, who plays the Charo wannabe, is from Colombia and is a celebrity in Latin America. Texas-born Jaci Velasquez, playing the spoiled rich girl, has a successful career as a singer of Tejano and Christian music, while Roselyn Sanchez, who portrays the lawyer, is a well-known actress from Puerto Rico.

"In the development process, it was really important that we were saying, 'This could be a Mexican, Cuban, a Puerto Rican story.' We never actually say where they come from," says Carla Hacken, a Fox executive who championed the project. "Hopefully this movie spans the gap between all different . . . Latinos."

Fox also cast popular astrologer Walter Mercado in a cameo role, which during test screenings sparked a huge audience response.

Significantly, the studio chose to make the film exclusively in English and will not dub it into Spanish. That's because studio research shows Hispanic American moviegoers generally see movies in English, Levine says, and the idea was to distinguish this film from movies coming from Spanish-language countries.

"It's a Hollywood movie -- that's part of its appeal," Levine said. "Movies from Mexico or Central America are not the same."

"Chasing Papi" got its start at Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, in the wake of the studio's 1997 success with "Soul Food," a black family drama. The studio decided to buy a pitch for a Latino romantic comedy shortly before Elizabeth Gabler came to head the division. Gabler had helped produce "Waiting to Exhale," the 1995 film starring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston that opened the door to films for the black audience.

Gabler liked the idea of developing films for the Latino audience. "I had always felt that this was a market that was underserved," she says. "When I got to Fox 2000 I was elated to see it in development."

But the development process was a learning experience for the executives. For one thing, they had no idea what actors were the major stars among Latinos, and had to learn about the Spanish-language telenovelas on Telemundo and Univision. They went through Fox's music department to come up with stars from the music world.

Even the most open-minded executives betray what Latinos might consider a certain condescension in their remarks.

Says Hacken, "One thing I learned more than anything about why this is culturally appealing is that the idea of the cheating man is really, really relatable to them, and funny to them."

She adds: "When a Latin man cheats on a woman, she doesn't go after the man, she goes after the hootchie mama. It's a revolutionary idea for Latino women -- or so we're told -- for the women to be friends and the man to be the jerk."

Fox's marketing department ordered up special market research and test screenings, for lack of previous data. As a result, the film is being sold heavily on Spanish-language radio, and in cities like New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego.

While the studio is marketing the film exclusively to Hispanics, director Mendoza wishes Fox had been willing to publicize it outside its target audience. "I think we're missing a huge market, the American teen market," she says. "Why not open it up to other cultures?"

But in the meantime, she and her colleagues are nervous enough about how the movie will perform among Latinos. If "Chasing Papi" is a success, many similar movies like it are likely to follow.

"There's an incredible amount of pressure for it to succeed with our audience," says Mendoza. "I don't necessarily want to be pigeonholed as a Latina director, but if I can help fill a void, fill a niche market, I'd be lucky and blessed."

Cheesy Papi? Stars Unapologetic

April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.


LOVE RECTANGLE: From left, Sofia Vergara, Roselyn Sanchez and Jaci Velasquez surround Eduardo Verastegui, all from the cast of the film 'Chasing Papi.'


The Latin media is camped out at the Shore Club in South Beach, waiting their turn for quickies with the cast of Chasing Papi.

It's a flick being touted as a first -- meaning never before has a major Hollywood studio spent big bucks making a light romantic comedy to appeal to English-speaking Hispanic audiences (without feeling compelled to make it as droll as a Hispanic TV special hosted by Jimmy Smits).

But while crews from Univision, Telemundo and company tweak their equipment in preparation for sound bites in an upstairs suite, Roselyn Sanchez, Jaci Velasquez and Eduardo Verastegui scarf down lunch at the newly opened Ago and worry out loud.

''Tell me the truth -- did you like it?,'' asks Roselyn, once the hottie in Rush Hour 2, now the buttoned-down lawyer in Chasing Papi.

The cast has a pretty good idea what critics might say about a movie that features a trio of shrieking over-the-top Latinas all trying to get their claws into a three-timing slickster with a heavy Spanish accent and a lock on the Latin Lover thing.

''I hope people don't get stuck on the idea that this movie is supposed to represent all Hispanics,'' says Roselyn, of Puerto Rico, who lately is speaking in a loose, easy English that says the language classes are paying off.

''It's a movie about three women who chase down a guy. It's not Shakespeare, and it's not Almodóvar,'' she says. ``It's a formula Hollywood romantic comedy, only this time featuring Latinos. It's not Amores Perros. Which actually represents Mexicans in a brutal way, but nobody criticizes that film for its depiction of Mexicans. Because it's an art film.''

Chasing Papi is pretty brutal, too, if you happen to think a Latina with exaggerated curves doing a whole cuchi-cuchi bit in loud, skintight outfits is painful.

But Sofia Vergara, the Colombian pinup queen who channels Charo in her role as a cocktail waitress from Miami, makes a convincing argument for why folks need to lighten up.

''I play the character over the top. And some could call that a stereotype. But I am over the top,'' she says while sipping coffee earlier in the day. Her people have lined something else up for her at lunchtime, so she offers a lingering morning one-on-one in which she proves there's much more to her than the kitten-in-G string thing that made her famous in the Latin world.

'I am that type of Latina from Miami with the big butt and the big t--s. That actually is me and that's why I was perfect for the role, I guess. And my Spanish accent is heavy. But I was directed to make it heavier. Now I look at the movie and I think, `Oh my God, people are going to think I really speak that way.' I dress over the top in real life, but not nearly as over the top as the character in the movie because we were going for the exaggeration. It was meant to be a funny caricature. But to say Hispanic women never have curves and never wear tight clothes -- sorry, but some of us do.''

OK, but a three-timing Latin lover? Isn't that kind of an easy cliche?

''Are you saying no man in your family has ever had more than one woman?'' asks Sofia. 'I think there is plenty about Chasing Papi that happens to be real. Latins are hot-blooded. But it's also true that fathers are always applauding their sons because they have a lot of girlfriends. `You have three novias, son? Now, that's a man.' ''

The three women who discover they're all being played by pretty boy Verastegui, a successful novela actor in Mexico, go haywire Hispanic-style. What would Sofia, Roselyn and Jaci do if their man turned out to be a dog?

''If that ever happened to me,'' says Sofia, ``I wouldn't try to win him back. Though, I could see getting into the whole rivalry thing of not letting the other woman have him either.''

''I've only had five boyfriends in my lifetime, so it's not like I have a lot of experience. But I think I would just walk away,'' says Jaci, the teeny pop singer who seems all grown up at 23. Her role as the spoiled Latinita who wields too many of her daddy's credit cards is her first go at acting.

''It's kind of embarrassing that I'm supposed to be a Latina and I don't actually speak a word of Spanish,'' says Jaci. 'I did at one point get to say `vamonos' in the movie. My family is from the Canary Islands, but they've been in America since the 1700s.''

Jaci is so not Hispanic, she had no idea who Walter Mercado was. The Liberace of Astrology, a fixture in the Latin world, has a cameo role that proves the best gag in Chasing Papi. But it was lost on Jaci.

''I had no idea who he was until the movie,'' she shrugs.

''What? You're kidding!'' says Roselyn, who like many Hispanics, grew up watching Mercado twirl around in glitter capes.

So what would Roselyn do if she caught her man cheating? Would she go off a la Ricky Ricardo, throwing a Spanish-language tizzy?

``I know Latinas are supposed to be dramatic. But I wouldn't give a man the pleasure. I wouldn't chase him. I think the biggest punishment would be to turn around and walk away. But trust me, my about face would be very dramatic.''

OK, so enough with the political discourse. La raza isn't going down in flames over one cheesy Hollywood flick.

So what if Chasing Papi can come off like an Epcot fiesta? The better question is, do these girls all use the word ''papi'' when they're in the throes? And what's that about, calling your sexual partner by something that paternal? Freud would have a field day. And how about Eduardo, he of the perfect five o'clock shadow and sexy male cleavage? Does he call his girls mami?

''I call plenty of people mami, not just girlfriends,'' says Eduardo, who keeps his electric razor on the sandpaper setting. 'I have even called good male friends papi. As in, `What's up, papi; how's it going, papito?' '' It's nothing weird.''

''Never. Nobody has ever called me mami, and I have never called anybody papi,'' says Jaci, the Americanita. ``I mean, it would be OK if somebody called me mami, I guess. But I wouldn't instinctually be yelling out Papi! I mean, no.''

'In Puerto Rico, you call everybody mami and papi. It's just a term of endearment. I can say, `Hi, Papi,' to a co-worker, to whoever, and it's not sexual,'' says Roselyn.

''But with my partner,'' she says making her voice low and throaty, 'I can say, `Ay, papi,' and it means something else entirely.'' ``Say papi the right way, and you've won the battle.''

'Chasing Papi' Couldn't Be Dumber


April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

The press notes for Chasing Papi herald the movie as ''the first major studio comedy to reflect the Hispanic cultural experience in America.'' It's a claim that A) says a lot about the way Hollywood perceives Hispanics, and B) takes great liberties with the traditional definition of the term ``comedy.''

This grating, witless, exasperatingly dumb movie, about three women who discover they're all dating the same man, is happy to trade on tired cliches, like the rico suave Latin lover (Eduardo Verastegui) who leaves women trembling and weak-kneed in his wake, but can't settle on just one girlfriend because, after all, ''how can you choose between the colors of nature's beautiful flowers?'' There is also the pneumatic cocktail waitress (Sofia Vergara) who never came across a dress size that was too small; the spoiled Latina princess (Jaci Velasquez) who wears blue contact lenses on her brown eyes to disguise her heritage; and the uptight lawyer (Roselyn Sanchez) who finally learns to loosen up and embrace life after dancing salsa.

There's nothing wrong with making a fluffy, breezy comedy that simply wants to entertain. The problem with Chasing Papi is that it seems to have been written with 10-year-olds in mind: It's probably not an accident that the film makes liberal use of animated interludes, although even the live action often plays like a noisy cartoon. It took a total of four writers to come up with the script, which includes a subplot about gun-toting gangsters chasing after a bag of money -- yet another reflection, apparently, of ''the Hispanic cultural experience in America.'' There is also a surprisingly mean-spirited jab at Daisy Fuentes, to whom the filmmakers apparently feel superior. Bragging rights, however, is not something that Chasing Papi will bring to anyone involved with the film.


Director Linda Mendoza, a veteran of TV sitcoms, embraces a broad comical sensibility that is sure to please those who watch Sabado Gigante for its subtlety. Mendoza encourages her actresses to shriek and squeal at regular intervals, the louder the better. But she is not above cutting away to a cute Pomeranian for cheap laughs whenever things get dire, which is often (the dog even gets its own dream sequence).

Chasing Papi includes cameos by Carlos Ponce (belting out a song), Sheila E (banging on the timbales) and TV astrologist Walter Mercado (being his usual, unsettlingly creepy self). Paul Rodriguez shows up as a mincing beauty pageant organizer, a performance that will have the folks at GLAAD grumbling. The movie looks great, and Vergara looks even better in a lacey red nightie. But following last year's drug drama Empire, another studio release marketed at Hispanic audiences, Chasing Papi leaves you wishing Hollywood would just forget about Latinos altogether. If this is how they really see us, I'd rather not know.


Cast: Roselyn Sanchez, Sofia Vergara, Jaci Velasquez, Eduardo Verastegui, Lisa Vidal, Freddy Rodriguez, D.L. Hughley, Paul Rodriguez.

Director: Linda Mendoza.

Producers: Tracey Trench, Laura Angelica Simon, Forest Whitaker.

Screenwriters: Laura Angelica Simon, Steven Antin, Alison Balian, Elizabeth Sarnoff.

A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 80 minutes. Adult themes.

Playing at: area theaters.

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