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  • Aliena Abernathy

The Problem with “Problemista”

By: Aliena Abernathy 



“Problemista” is a film that will make people love it, or make people hate it, based solely off its insane premise. The film follows an immigrant toy designer from El Salvador, named Alejandro, whose dream is to work for Hasbro (the toy company), creating toys that prepare children for the disappointment and depression of adult life, (e.g., a slinky that can’t fall down a set of stairs, or a Cabbage Patch Kid that gets anxiety over sending text messages).  




Movie Poster, credit: A24



When Alejandro’s job as a caretaker at a cryogenics facility ends in disaster, he suddenly must deal with a quickly expiring visa. In a desperate attempt to stay in the country, Alejandro takes a job with an eccentric woman named Elizabeth, the widow (one of his former frozen patients from the cryogenics facility). Elizabeth promises Alejandro that she will sponsor his visa if he can create an art exhibit which features her late husband’s collection of original paintings of eggs. What follows is a psychedelic escapade through New York City, with Elizabeth hurling insults at random service workers and Alejandro becoming increasingly lost in a Stockholm Syndrome of emotions for Elizabeth.  


This is a premise that could only be born in the mind of SNL Alumni Julio Torres. “Problemista” is Torres’ first feature-length effort, and his signature surrealist style, developed during his tenure at SNL and from his short-lived HBO horror-comedy “Los Espookys,” is all over the film. Torres wrote, directed, and took the lead role as Alejandro, whom he shares many striking similarities with. For one, both are Salvadorians who immigrated to New York City to pursue a career in arts, and each one had to undergo the trials of navigating the labyrinth of the United States immigration system. Because of these similarities, the film takes on a semi-autobiographical tone, presenting the real struggles of migrant artists navigating their way to success with the U.S. government breathing down their neck every step of the way. For instance, Alejandro must produce a few thousand dollars to pay for a permit for Elizabeth to sponsor his visa. However, he cannot get paid by Elizabeth until she sponsors him, and she cannot sponsor him until he coughs up the money for a permit. Alejandro turns to the only place someone desperate for cash can turn, degrading and sketchy Craigslist jobs. In this case, Craigslist is personified as an actual entity, played by Larry Owens (“Abbott Elementary”), presenting the odd-jobs to him in a fishnet shirt while existing in a junk-filled mental palace filled with discarded toys and neon lights.


The surrealism continues throughout the film, from 3D animated Disney-like scenes of Alejandro’s home in El Salvador to a cardboard cutout fantasy battle scene between Alejandro and Elizabeth (who is portrayed as a mythical hydra for that scene), which accentuates the weirdest elements of the all-too-common immigrant experience. This type of visual language serves as one-half of the film’s comedy, and it only works though its consistency towards the inconsistent. Each scene brings about some new visual gimmick for the filmmaker to play around with, allowing them to explore the weird and distinguish each moment from the rest.  


Consequentially, each scene feels more like an individual sketch rather than another chapter in a story. Jumping from a Disney-esque scene in Alejandro’s mother’s home in El Salvador to 2001-esque time dilation scene, for example, becomes extremely jarring to the viewer early into the film. One may find themselves eventually getting used to the stylistic mishmash, though whether that is due to sensory fatigue, or accepting the inconsistent as consistent, is dependent on the viewer.  




Still shot from the film, credit to: Jon Pack/A24



The other half of the film’s comedy is heavily inspired by actor Tilda Swinton (“The Killer,” “Doctor Strange”) playing Elizabeth. Swinton plays the embodiment of the worst humans that you know, the nightmarish ghouls you see in videos yelling at waitstaff and choosing escalation in every contentious situation. Swinton embodies this character through every facet of her performance, from her loud red hair which matches her equally loud personality, right down to her Grinch green pantsuits that are emblematic of her disgust and envy. She is the problem in “Problemista.” A tour de force who solely pushes the film’s story, and comedy, to its wild twists and turns. 

 

The problem with Swinton being “the problem” is that there is only so much room left over for “the istas.” The film has an all-star cast: Larry Owens coming off the success of Abbott Elementary, Greta Lee of recent “Past Lives” fame, and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan making a cameo as the cryogenically frozen husband of Elizabeth. Despite the noteworthy names in the cast, none of them are given much of a purpose beyond being a conduit for Swinton’s character to unleash her rage. Each time a noteworthy face appears on the screen, it’s squandered though a criminal underutilization of their talents. Even the film’s lead, Alejandro, feels like a background character any time Elizabeth and him share a scene. She always steals the spotlight. 


While Tilda Swinton may be a scream in a field of whispers, she is the connective tissue which links every otherwise disconnected scene together. In a film where consistency doesn’t seem to be a concern of the filmmaker, the fuss she makes about every small inconvenience in her life serves as the constant that makes it all work. To add, Elizabeth’s rage and Alejandro’s reactions never stop being funny.  


Though “Problemista” has its, well, problems, the film still achieves what it set out to do: flip the immigrant’s story onto its head using psychedelic visuals and off-the-walls hilarious comedy. It’s a laudable, and hopefully not final, entry into Julio Torres’ filmography, and you should be excited to see how he takes an already unique brand of comedy to the next level. Next time, let’s make sure the "problemistas" don't overshadow the "solutionistas." 

 

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