‘Problemista’: an exhausting, yet not unsuccessful directorial debut

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in ‘Problemista.’ (Photo: Courtesy of A24)

Out gay writer/director Julio Torres’ playful directorial debut, “Problemista,” is about navigating bureaucracy and the power of being a squeaky wheel. 

The film features several obstacles for its Salvadorian protagonist, Alejandro (Torres), to overcome as he strives to achieve his dream of designing toys for Hasbro. (One idea: a car with a leaky tire; it gives kids limited time to play with it.) 

While he waits to hear back from Hasbro’s Talent Incubator Program, Alejandro gets a job at Freeze Corp, a cryogenics facility sponsoring his work visa in the United States. But when he makes an error at work and is fired, Alejandro has 30 days to find a sponsor, or he will have to leave the country. Cue various hourglass shots marking his dwindling time.

One possible solution presents itself in the form of Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art critic hoping to mount a show of 13 egg paintings by her late husband (RZA). However, Elizabeth is both shrill and abusive — a very squeaky wheel indeed — who bulldozes her way through every exchange. When Elizabeth gives an order to a waiter, she is literally ordering him in a way that is cringey and darkly funny. When people try to explain things to her, she insists, comically, they are shouting at her.

“Problemista” mines its humor in the strange and precarious world that Alejandro finds himself in as he tries to survive a series of setbacks and disappointments and placate the high maintenance Elizabeth while absorbing her wild mood swings. There are some clever scenes, most notably a letter of apology Alejandro writes on Elizabeth’s behalf to recover a painting needed for the show, but not enough of them.

The best episodes, however, inventively illustrate the Catch-22 nature of naturalization that Alejandro faces, as when he is told he must pay for a lawyer before he can get the very job he needs to pay for the lawyer. The sequence is constructed as an uphill maze. In addition, Torres has characters “vanish” when they are no longer able to stay in the country, another shrewd representation of the immigrant experience. 

The imaginative visuals are appealing throughout the film. There is a fantasy childhood “castle” his mother Dolores (Catalina Saavedra) builds for him, a Craig’s List avatar (Larry Owens) that helps Alejandro find jobs to earn fast cash, and even the alternate world where Elizabeth is a multi-headed hydra terrorizing Alejandro. These episodes play to Torres’ strength as a sketch comedy writer (he worked for “Saturday Night Live”), but the impression they deliver in a feature film suggests he just wants to get all the ideas he has in his head on screen in case he never gets to make another film. 

The haphazard nature of “Problemista” and its scattershot style may be indicative of Alejandro’s situation, but even the film’s droll narration by Isabella Rossellini stops after a promising beginning. It picks back up again briefly near the end to fill in some details or make some witty remark, but it also comes off as a project started and abandoned and resumed. It adds to the film’s twee-ness. 

The quirky distractions can be amusing, such as a running gag has Elizabeth demanding that Alejandro master the database program FileMaker Pro — another seemingly insurmountable hurdle. But the comedy is best when it stings. A sequence where Alejandro chastises Estefani (River L. Ramirez), a Bank of America representative, about being charged an exorbitant overdraft fee is particularly incisive. Insisting that the company is “benefitting from the misfortune of people who have no margin of error,” this speaks to Alejandro’s immigration issues and politicizes the rapacious nature of corporate America. It is, therefore, ironic that Alejandro’s dream is to work for a corporate entity. 

Sometimes the filmmaker can be subtle. A handful of scenes featuring Elizbeth’s other assistant, Bingham (James Scully, Torres’ real-life partner) enjoying privilege is an indirect commentary on Alejandro’s struggle. In contrast, Elizabeth, is both a sledgehammer and a jackhammer who can force a tram operator stop and turn around mid-journey because she left a painting back at the station. Swinton, decked out in a series of outrageous outfits (of course), plays her every scene as big as possible, but this approach renders her performance as mostly one-note. She monopolizes the film, and while her toxic comments and actions are often funny, the relentless nature of her character ultimately becomes exhausting. That only Alejandro can understand her and deal with her manic antics may be the smartest joke of all.

“Problemista” eventually becomes exhausting, even if viewers empathize with Alejandro as he shuffles along in his precious little walk from one bad situation to another. At one point, he reluctantly takes a Craig’s List job cleaning for a man, knowing the job is code for sex, but he needs the money. Yet the impact of this encounter is muted; Torres plays the scene for awkward laughs when it could have engendered some real emotion.

Alejandro learns that it is only through asserting himself and creating the chaos that he can make it in America. As such, “Problemista’ is not passive-aggressive, it is aggressive-aggressive. Torres and his film are not unsuccessful, but both try too hard.

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