Julio Torres brings his unique sense of humor, wildly inventive visual style, and ability to craft a biting satire together in his directorial debut, “Problemista.” The result feels like A24’s answer to Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” a film with a peculiar and poignant perspective about the woes of living in the current American society and navigating an indecipherable system. It also presents a dream-like world where people literally disappear when their visas expire, where arguments evolve into imaginary talks with community theater-like costumes, and where FileMaker Pro is the single greatest evil ever devised by humankind.
Torres has made a career out of crafting idiosyncratic, otherworldly comedy that nevertheless captures cultural moments, like his “Papyrus” or “Wells for Boys” sketches on SNL, or how “Los Espookys,” which mixed magical realism, some of the most bizarre imagery on TV, and fantastically sharp commentary.
Here, he leaves behind the horror, but still masterfully blends his sensibilities with the format of an indie comedy about a young El Salvadoran man, Alejandro (played by Torres himself) trying desperately to make it in NYC, and the bond he forms with a loud, quirky former art critic (Tilda Swinton) trying to get a gallery to exhibit the egg paintings her cryogenically frozen husband once painted.
From the very beginning, it becomes clear “Problemista” is not concerned with so-called logic or with the boundaries of our world, as we are introduced to a young Alejandro living in El Salvador with his artist mother, who creates elaborate (and also physically impossible) sculptures. When asked for ideas to add to the sculpture, young Alejandro simply asks for a mirror, “So I can see what I’ve become.”
Years later, Alejandro moves to New York with big dreams about being a toy designer and working with Hasbro in developing such ideas as giving smartphones to Cabbage Patch Kids so we know what they’re up to, or a Barbie with fingers crossed behind her back that tells you she’s hiding something. The problem is that he’s fired from his job at a cryogenic freezing company, which means he is on a race to find another job that can sponsor his visa, or he’ll be kicked out of the country.
Torres delivers possibly the best movie about the Latino experience in the U.S. out of SXSW. The otherworldly magical realism helps heighten the absurdity of the immigration system without it weighing on the humor of the story. Torres places equal frustration on the smallest inconveniences as he does on big systematic issues. For instance, when we first see a grown-up Alejandro, he is trying to understand why his emails from Hasbro always come from an impersonal “noreply” email address. Then there’s the literal sand clock that shows Alejandro’s remaining time to get a new job and a visa sponsor, and how people quite literally disappear before our very eyes when their clock runs out and the system abandons them — a phenomenal visual cue.
A big part of that humor comes when Alejandro meets the wife of the cryogenically frozen man he had to look after. Played by Swinton, Elizabeth is a loud, eccentric former art critic, one that isn’t afraid to yell at every human she meets for literally anything, a woman incapable of understanding customer support guidance, or that you can’t place a CD on your iPad. The two actors have incredible chemistry, with Torres finding an on-screen partner that can match his quirky rapid-fire humor. Indeed, Swinton’s loud, in-your-face manic performance is the perfect counterpart to Torres’ signature deadpan deliveries.
“Problemista” is not just funny, however, it is also rather earnest and compassionate towards its characters. The film draws parallels in the way both Alejandro and Elizabeth are outsiders trying to decipher a world that doesn’t care about people. Swinton may at times appear to be just a Karen bullying her way through the world, but her performance and the script make it clear she is not part of the system, using it and abusing it to her benefit, but an outsider that has had to fight tooth and nail to get even a modicum of attention.
“Problemista” shows Julio Torres’ visual style and sense of humor work as well on the big screen as they do on TV. His feature directorial debut is a confident, imaginative calling card, a film that has as much to say about the immigrant experience as it does about being an artist trying to remain unique and personal, as it simply delivers an endearing and hilarious comedy.
“Problemista” world premiered at SXSW 2023. It will be released by A24.