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Review: Julio Torres' absurdist directorial debut 'Problemista' a cutting, incisive satire

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service on

Published in Entertainment News

As our unofficial poet laureate Taylor Swift once shamefully confessed: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” Sometimes having big dreams can be a real problem; sometimes just existing in the world can be a problem, too. In Julio Torres’ earnest and absurdist directorial debut “Problemista,” he suggests that perhaps becoming the problem yourself is the only way to make it through the nightmarish maze that is the American dream.

Torres introduces himself alongside this tricky quandary in “Problemista,” though the Emmy-nominated writer for “Saturday Night Live,” and the creator and star of the HBO series “Los Espookys,” will need no introduction for some. Torres, who wrote, directed and stars in “Problemista,” is from El Salvador, and his mother is an architect and designer who collaborated on his 2019 HBO comedy special “My Favorite Shapes.” In “Problemista,” Torres plays Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador living in New York City, whose mother, played by Catalina Saavedra, is an architect and designer. Alejandro, who dreams up strange little toys with mundane issues, is in the process of applying to a talent incubator program at Hasbro while working at another company that’s sponsoring his visa, a cryogenic preservation company called FreezeCorp.

It’s at FreezeCorp that Alejandro meets the woman who will turn his life upside down and in doing so, shapes the central philosophy of “Problemista.” Art critic Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) is the wife of Alejandro’s frozen charge, a painter named Bobby Ascencio (RZA) who chose to freeze his body when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Elizabeth believes wholeheartedly that FreezeCorp will eventually figure out how to reanimate Bobby, and in the meantime, she’s got to get organized, and that’s where Alejandro comes in.

After an unfortunate mishap, Alejandro is let go from the company, and in Elizabeth he finds a dangerously aligned spirit: they both desperately want something, and possess just enough deranged optimism to go after it. He agrees to assist her in putting together an art show of Bobby’s work (exclusively paintings of eggs) and she promises she’ll sponsor his visa, a necessity for him to stay in the country and also, at some point, to earn money.

With her Manic Panic magenta mop and frazzled demeanor, Elizabeth moves through the world like a battlefield, terrorizing waiters and customer service representatives, and constantly fighting technology on which she barely has a grasp, but is convinced will fix everything. She’s fixated on a niche computer program called FileMaker Pro that becomes a running joke, and one haunting image — of a white phone charger wrapped around a stiletto heel — is at once nonsensical and deeply communicative of her bizarre world.

Alejandro has shaped his demeanor to be soft, pleasant and nonthreatening; he nods yes and agrees to everything in order to be accepted. Torres gives Alejandro a strange little jog for his gait, and his hair has a perpetual cowlick, which adds to his childlike demeanor. His innocence has been cultivated by his artist mother, who created a fantasy world for him in the jungles of El Salvador, but Alejandro’s naivete is also a necessary delusion to keep pushing through the labyrinth that is the United States, traversing preposterously complex economic and immigration systems designed to keep one out rather than welcome anyone in.

“Problemista” is a cutting, incisive satire that slices the art world and immigration system open with a thousand tiny paper cuts. It is deeply funny, stacked with jokes and an ensemble cast who color in this world, including James Scully as a laughably privileged foil to Alejandro, Greta Titelman as a snobbish gallery assistant, and Spike Einbinder as one of Alejandro’s roommates who’s always inviting him to a terrible party. As a filmmaker, Torres animates Alejandro’s experience with magical realism, turning phone conversations and internet searches into fantastically surreal sequences. Larry Owens plays the living embodiment of Craigslist, wrapped in tech ephemera, while the increasingly combative conversations between Elizabeth and Alejandro about “syncing the databases” are configured as an epic battle between a knight and a many-headed hydra set in a canyon bathed in red light.

Elizabeth becomes Alejandro’s foe, a many-headed hydra of making his life a living hell with demands for CD-ROMs and overnight packages, holding him hostage with the promise of granting him acceptance into this country. He fights and fights, until he realizes that what she has granted him is the gift of permission to become a problem, to take up space, make noise, demand what you want, and to find the power in that.

It’s a story unique to Torres, but deeply relatable to anyone who has ever strived to achieve something. This absurdist comedy becomes a beautifully moving piece about how we make it through the world with desperation and hope, and the hard-earned lessons we find in each other.

 

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'PROBLEMISTA'

4 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for some language and sexual content)

Running time: 1:38

How to Watch: In theaters Friday

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