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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Problemista"

Film still of Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista (2023).
Problemista, Fruit Tree/A24, 2023.
Film still of Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista (2023).


The world of Julio Torres is instantly recognizable and totally alien at the same time. The stand-up comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer traffics in whimsical specificity: Consider that his most well-known SNL sketch was an ad for plastic wishing wells that sensitive little boys could gaze into.

Torres also stars in his directorial debut, Problemista, as Alejandro, a 20-something El Salvadoran immigrant living in New York City. He dreams of becoming a toy designer, but his applications for Hasbro’s emerging talents program keep getting rejected. Perhaps it’s because his toy ideas are as existential and conceptual as those plastic wells, like the car whose tires slowly deflate—you know, to remind children of their own mortality.

Ale, as he’s known, is trying to secure a work visa. Easier said than done. In between odd jobs he finds on Craigslist—handing out coupons for hair care products on the street, for instance, or standing in line to get someone the newest iPhone—he works in a weird medical facility that cryogenically freezes supposed luminaries so they can wake up centuries in the future. Ale is the custodian of a frozen artist named Bobby (played in flashbacks by RZA), whose fascination with painting giant eggs in artificial environments never clicked with the public.

Enter Bobby’s art critic wife Elizabeth, played by a hilariously ferocious Tilda Swinton. She’s a customer service representative’s nightmare: combative, never pleased, insistent upon things that are ridiculous at best and impossible at worst. In fantasy sequences, Ale imagines Elizabeth as a fairy tale creature to be slain, a demon with glowing red eyes who screams at poor waiters demanding they stop screaming at her.

Elizabeth is willing to give Ale a part-time gig helping her track down the disparate pieces of a collection Bobby once dreamed of exhibiting, thus cementing his legacy. Much of the movie’s middle section concerns Ale’s quest to retrieve all of Bobby’s paintings, and it’s the least compelling part of Problemista. What works is Ale’s relationship with Elizabeth, who embodies everything wrong with white upper-middle class cluelessness but is also, somehow, the person who understands Ale best. Swinton gets to tear into this role, a snarling Boho monster who’s a laundry list of neuroses and paranoias and also has the capacity for unexpected flashes of self-awareness.

Torres’ filmmaking has an endearing handmade quality to it. He’s absurdist yet earnest, with a sensibility that lands somewhere between Pedro Almodóvar and Michel Gondry. He has also packed his movie with small, thoughtfully observed details that are just right, from the clothes his characters wear to the books on their end tables. Sometimes a careful, nearly imperceptible piece of ephemera in someone’s living room tells you more about a person than pages of dialogue could.

Problemista has an epilogue that’s mushier than I expected, and it sends us out of the theater on a note of sentimentality that rings false to me. But it’s ultimately a movie about dreams, and I suppose those often are mushy—whether they’re the fantastical kind or the merely utilitarian kind often associated with the so-called American Dream. In Torres’ film, as in the real world, that dream is often out of reach for immigrants kept on a treadmill of confounding paperwork and logical loopholes. It’s a process that’s about as maddening and inconsistent as one of Elizabeth’s tirades.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics on Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.