Be open to the fanciful (you’ll be rewarded); “PROBLEMISTA” | Review

Last Updated: March 9, 2024By Tags: , ,
Written and directed by its star, Julio Torres, the new semi-surrealistic comedy “Problemista” belongs in the category of the un-categorizable. While not as strong, Torres’ film could be mentioned in the same breath as Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” and Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” These films take a serious subject and color it with whimsy and artistic imagery, giving a sharper edge to their storytelling.

For his filmmaking debut, Torres stars as “Alejandro,” a twenty-something aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who seeks someone to sponsor him for a visa so that he can remain in the United States. Laser-focused on getting hired by Hasbro, Alejandro has some humorous ideas for toys: a Barbie doll with one hand behind her back with fingers crossed and Cabbage Patch Kids with smartphones. While waiting for Hasbro. Alejandro works at a cryogenics facility explicitly created for the artistic community. Assigned as caretaker to the frozen painter Bobby Ascencio (RZA), Alejandro becomes entangled with Bobby’s widow, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a tempestuous art critic who is the very definition of rude. Showing disdain for anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path, Elizabeth warms to young Alejandro. She sees the same artistic spirit in him as she found in her husband.

While occasionally too much, Tilda Swinton’s performance is great fun. The Oscar-winning actress injects the work with tinges of humanity. Her admiration for Alejandro is undeniable and honest, although she hides it by lashing out at him occasionally. With a performance that would be at home in the early films of Woody Allen, the actress finds a good balance between the extreme emotional state of her character and the sweet soul buried inside.

Elizabeth offers to sponsor Alejandro as long as he helps her curate a show of her late husband’s work. He jumps at the opportunity and finds himself in a cinematically inventive race against time to achieve his visa, stay sane, and find his place in the world. Here, the film enters its fantasy world as Alejandro traverses his anxieties. Some of Torres’ visions are imaginative. A remarkable sequence finds Alejandro in a suit of armor “battling” with a Bank of America employee over their deceptive (but accepted) practices regarding overdraft fees.

Another creative spark comes from Alejandro’s dealings with Craigslist, represented by actor Larry Owens. Owen’s portrayal of Craigslist (a strange phrase to write) is out of the Fellini film world, as he is decked out in silver garb and eye makeup, endlessly floating in the illuminated space of classified ads.

Dressed as the warrior knight once again, Alejandro does battle with Elizabeth. This sequence works for a while but goes on too long until it becomes repetitive and exhausting. Sometimes, less is more”, even when tripping the cinematic “light fantastic.”

As a writer, Torres understands the bond between a mother and her son. In his many phone calls to his mom, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), the filmmaker shows the seeds of his character’s creative side, as his mother encouraged Alejandro’s imagination from a young age. An artist herself (who cannot create if she worries about her son), it is clear how Dolores raised her boy to be a strong soul, but his current predicament and the craziness of being in Elizabeth’s orbit have caused him to retreat. Alejandro’s drive is there, but the real world is chipping away at his dreams and the ability to achieve them. Dolores is a loving tribute to his real mother, an architect and a fashion designer. Knowing this, the picture could have benefited from more conversations between the two.

Those who enter the unique world of “Problemista” must be open to the fanciful. As do filmmakers such as Jacques Tati and Wes Anderson, Julio Torres creates a cinematic experience with a soul; the eccentricities of his characters and their situations are colored in carefully designed visual tones. Combining Fredrik Wenzel’s camerawork, Katie Byron’s production design, and Robert Ouyang Rusli’s oddly ambient choral score, Torres achieves a fairy tale atmosphere made whole by Isabella Rossellini’s carefully constructed narration.

As a writer, Torres manages some sharp observations about America’s maddeningly offensive and cruel immigration system, a true nightmare for anyone trying to make a better life in this country. As an hourglass counts down the days until he will be deported without a visa, Torres achieves a “High Noon” styled tension that helps the audience root for his success. For Alejandro, instead of a train carrying killers, it will be a bureaucracy cloaked in Catch-22s that will come for his freedom.

Starring as his lead character, Torres is uneven. There are moments when his comically deadpan portrayal is endearing; as an actor, his eyes can sometimes say a lot. In scenes with his immigration lawyer (Laith Nakli), moments with Swinton’s Elizabeth, and especially when he accepts a “kinky cleaning” job for a gay man, Torres’ mousy acting style works and gives the character humanity. What doesn’t work is Alejandro’s strange walk. The character bounces rather than taking steps as if trying to step lightly out in the cruel world. From the first shot, it is off-putting. As it continues from scene to scene, Torres makes too strong an effort to add additional quirkiness to his creation.

What Julio Torres lacks as an actor, he makes up for in vision. “Problemista” is a refreshingly alive motion picture. If some threads are left unfinished (a budding relationship with Alejandro’s immigration lawyer is mined and then immediately abandoned), the film’s visual stylings breathe intoxicating life into his tale.

A few things don’t work, but most do in Julio Torres’ trippy, Gilliam-esque film. Adventurous filmgoers should have a good time letting Torres’ flights of fanciful cinematic angels sing Thee to thy theater.

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