THE STORY – Alejandro is an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, struggling to bring his unusual ideas to life in New York City. As time on his work visa runs out, a job assisting an erratic art-world outcast becomes his only hope to stay in the country and realize his dream. From writer/director Julio Torres comes a surreal adventure through the equally treacherous worlds of New York City and the U.S. Immigration system.
THE CAST – Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Isabella Rossellini, Larry Owens, Catalina Saavedra, Greta Lee
THE TEAM – Julio Torres (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
Tilda Swinton has nothing to prove at this point in her storied career. She’s an Oscar winner who has worked with writers and directors from across the cinematic spectrum, from Derek Jarman to Amy Schumer. Her taste is varied but always seems to come down to artists and stories she believes in (barring perhaps the occasional fantasy blockbuster). Her name on a cast list practically ensures a level of quality in her own performance, if nothing else. She is at her bonkers brilliant best in “Problemista,” the debut film from former “Saturday Night Live” writer Julio Torres.
Alejandro (Julio Torres) is a dreamer. Growing up in El Salvador, his artist mother (Catalina Saavedra) indulged his fantasies and built him a fabulously original fantasy castle to play in. Nowadays, he’s living in New York, trying to make his dream of being a toy designer for Hasbro come true. It’s tough going, though, especially when he loses his job (and, thus, his work visa) as an archivist for a cryogenic freezing facility. Now he has one month to find another job that will sponsor him for a work visa, or else he will be forced to go back home. Thankfully, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the partner of the artist whose work he was archiving, is in a tizzy and hires Alejandro to help her organize his work and plan the show she promised. If he can make the show happen, Elizabeth will sponsor Alejandro for a work visa. Can he do it before his time runs out?
“Problemista” is Torres’s feature debut as both writer and director, and it’s both incredibly ambitious and incredibly singular. The film is filled with surreal fantasy sequences that dramatize different parts of Julio’s life – working through the bureaucracy of the US immigration system is a maze of rooms that he must find crawlspaces to make his way through; the digital interface of Craigslist is given human form by the hilarious Larry Owens; Elizabeth becomes a dragon that Alejandro the Knight must slay. There’s a lot going on, and it could have been an unholy mess in the wrong hands. Torres does an admirable job holding everything together. The seams show occasionally, but how these disparate elements coalesce into a whole is impressive for someone so early in their career.
A lot of this probably stems from the fact that this is Torres’s vision from top to bottom. His screenplay is a marvel, combining the aforementioned surrealist touches and vicious social satire in Torres’s singular voice. Much of the humor, especially surrounding Alejandro, is of the awkward, cringe comedy variety, but his writing for Elizabeth couldn’t be more different. It’s cringe-y, yes, but in an aggressive way. Elizabeth could be described as a Karen – she seemingly goes through life-berating people in order to get what she wants, even if she has to lie to do so. An early scene in which she is attempting to show Alejandro a picture on her phone and ends up castigating an Apple tech on the phone is a comedic masterpiece of both writing and performing.
Swinton is certainly not the only choice for a role like Elizabeth -one could imagine someone like Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing the part, for example – but she’s almost certainly the best one. In clothes that accentuate her already sharp shoulders, with a mop of perpetually frazzled dyed red hair, she’s impossible to look away from, and when she starts speaking, Elizabeth always makes damn sure she won’t be ignored. Dialing up her voice to manic speed levels and rock concert volume, Swinton’s Elizabeth is an iconic comic creation, able to elicit laughs by just opening her mouth. Through the actress’s genius, she doesn’t feel like a retread of her previous she-devil roles, either. As always, Swinton has carefully considered how this woman would act and why. This connection with the character is also vital in ensuring that Elizabeth isn’t a completely hateful woman. She is constantly confused and impatient for a reason, and Swinton allows her humanity to peek through just enough so that we aren’t just laughing at her; we feel for her, too. Torres is a delight in the role he has written for himself, finding the perfect balance between child and adult. Alejandro isn’t naïve, but he is inexperienced and very unsure of himself. As he spends more time around the fearless Elizabeth, he finds his backbone, and Torres charts that journey beautifully. In the climactic scene, he delivers a dressing down that Elizabeth would be proud of, and it never once feels like Elizabeth is speaking through him. Rather, it’s as though Alejandro has learned how to wield Elizabeth’s powers for good, in his own way and in his own time.
The plot of “Problemista” boils down to an age-old tale of how two people with different backgrounds and personalities change each other for the better. Alejandro and Elizabeth are both such original creations, and the film around them has such a unique point of view that it feels completely fresh. Torres is precisely the type of talent you hope Hollywood would nurture, and it’s not hard to map Alejandro’s fight with Hasbro onto how Hollywood treats minorities as they try to break into the business. It is abundantly clear that “Problemista” is in every way the film Torres intended to make. If the more dramatic, heartfelt moments feel like they’ve gotten short shrift, at least it’s because his comic voice is so strong. There are plenty of unique young talents like Torres out there, and “Problemista” is such a strong debut that one hopes (especially on the heels of the success of “Everything Everywhere All At Once“) that Hollywood will find them and give them a chance to make a “Problemista” of their own.