Stream It or Skip It: ‘Problemista’ on Max, Julio Torres’ Wearingly Weird Comedy About the Immigrant Experience
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Author: John Serba
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Julio Torres writes, directs, produces and stars in Problemista (now streaming on Max), a very strange and idiosyncratic and – watch out for this word, which should only be doled out in the most extreme circumstances – quirky comedy. The former Saturday Night Live writer and creator of HBO series Los Espookys and Fantasmas makes his directorial debut with this story of an odd fellow from El Salvador who moved to New York City to achieve his dream of being a toymaker at Hasbro. Easier said than done, especially when you consider Tilda Swinton is in this movie, the only actress I can think of who’d be capable of playing someone who’d be capable of so casually derailing someone’s dream of being a toymaker for Hasbro. Additionally, no movie with Tilda Swinton in it ever goes down easy, and this one is no different.


The Gist: Alejandro (Torres), or just Ale if you wish, has a cowlick. You kinda can’t stop looking at it. There it is, twoinging off his head like a weed that keeps growing out of a crack in the driveway no matter how many times you pull it or poison it. He also walks funny and always has a kind of nonplussed blank look on his face and has ideas for toys that are weird and that he pitches to Hasbro as an alternative to toys that are actually fun. E.g., a Slinky that doesn’t walk down stairs and therefore forces children to traverse the stairs themselves and therefore learn something about disappointment. Shockingly, his Hasbro application is met with a rejection letter, forcing him to take a job at a cryogenics company that freezes humans so they may awaken in the future. We see a video promoting the facility, and it states that, legally speaking, “this company provides a form of euthanasia.”

It’s a living, sort of, I guess. Ale is from El Salvador, where his artist mother seems to have raised him to be a major weirdo – although, to be fair, almost everyone in this movie is a major weirdo. The cryo-gig helps Ale maintain his work visa so he doesn’t get deported, so of course, he trips over a cord and unplugs a cryo-chamber and gets fired for it, even though he plugged it back in, although it took too long for him to plug it back in, so who knows if it really hurt anything, but he gets fired anyway and who knows if it’s truly justified. Back to the series of escape-room-esque cubes that Torres uses to illustrate the bureaucracy of the immigration system, and now Ale has a brief window of time to get another job before he’s forced to go back to El Salvador. 

This is when Tilda Swinton enters the picture. She plays Elizabeth, an art critic married to Bobby (RZA), the man in the cryo-chamber whose cord Ale tripped on. She needs a personal assistant and Ale is her guy, sort of. She’ll sign his sponsorship that’ll allow him to stay in the U.S., but only if he helps her put together an exhibition of Bobby’s paintings (they’re all of eggs, for some reason). The gig’s easier said than done, because the art world is impenetrable and snooty, and also, Elizabeth is a maniac who makes highly unreasonable demands of everyone around her, and screeches at them like a banshee or harpy until she gets what she wants. There’s no money in the gig for Ale, at least not yet, so he resorts to responding to sketchy Craigslist ads to earn money to pay for the tiny room in the exorbitantly expensive tiny apartment he shares with lunatic roommates. Meanwhile, tick-tock goes the timer on his immigration status, and I feel like Ale tying his fate to this awful tornado-woman probably wasn’t the wisest choice, and is a longshot avenue for him to eventually achieve his dreams, but for some reason he feels the need to honor his commitment. This movie really trafficks in the inexplicable, I tell you.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Problemista is a bit like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind crossed with an Everything Everywhere All at Once brand of that’s-so-random comedy (albeit toned down, thankfully) crossed with The Devil Wears Prada if it was a David Lynch ripoff. 

Performance Worth Watching: A character in the film describes Elizabeth as someone who can “bend the rules of time and space,” and that felt like meta-commentary for Swinton, who full commits to Torres’ brand of weirdness – and if you’re gonna ask anyone to fully commit to your brand of weirdness, Swinton should be at the top of the list. 

Memorable Dialogue: One of Ale’s awful Craigslist gigs has him walking up to randos on the street and saying “Can I ask you a question about your hair?” while we cringe ourselves to death.

Sex and Skin: None.

Photo: HBO

Our Take: Problemista routinely, distractingly reminds us of how weird it is. Torres deploys so many goofy cutaways, plucky soundtrack flourishes and Ron Howard-esque narrator interjections (by Isabella Rossellini!), it’s impossible to fall into any kind of narrative groove. That’s surely intentional, a reflection of the frustration one feels as an immigrant chasing whatever they believe the American dream to be, hurdling one ridiculous incompetency after another. Point taken, but a movie that so frequently calls attention to itself in an overtly grating manner runs the risk of – quirk! – alienating its – quirk! – audience with – quirk! – all of its quirky – quirk! – asides quickly gets annoying, just like this very sentence. Aren’t I clever?

Granted, the method will work for those who can hang on and ride Torres’ offbeat wavelength. But for others – especially those who chafed at the similarly themed and styled nuttiness of Everything Everywhere All at Once – the film can be a bit much. Torres tends to forego suggestion in lieu of spoonfed literalism, underscoring and exclamation-pointing his points as if he’s worried that we’ll get lost in the nonsensical unlogic of Ale’s travails. The biggest offender in this narrative is the Elizabeth character, a scathing caricature of privilege; the filmmaker nearly turns Swinton into a screeching, feedbacking bullhorn, but the actress often finds a way to make eardrum-bursting tirades of entitlement at least a little bit funny. The flip side of that is Torres’ surreal-deadpan acting and directing mannerisms, where it seems like he wants us to laugh at something more because it’s off-the-wall weird than legitimately funny.

The primary disconnect here is in Ale himself. We feel obligated to care about him because of his unjust situation. I was more emotionally invested in the idea of giving creative and well-meaning immigrants a legit shot at the American dream than in the character. Ale’s heart is swarmed by a bundle of impassive eccentricities. I liked how he remained calm under pressure, functioning as a foil for Swinton’s shrill flailing. But I remained at a bit of a remove from this guy, who’s trapped more in his filmmaker’s wearying vision than the byzantine madness of America and its cold, dispassionate systems.

Our Call: It’s easier to admire Problemista than to actually like or enjoy it. SKIP IT.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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