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Julio Torres survived the visa office and the art world. His first film skewers both

Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

To apply for a work visa in the United States is to set out on a biblical odyssey through a glacial, bureaucratic process renowned for its voracious appetite for complex and expensive paperwork. About a dozen years ago, comedian Julio Torres began that process. And, to help make ends meet as he waited — there is a lot of waiting — Torres, who is from El Salvador, took just about any menial job he could find.

He served as a translator for parent-teacher conferences and worked as a personal assistant for busy professionals in New York City, where he still lives. At one point he interviewed for a magician's assistant position only to find out that his potential employer was not a magician but a saxophone player whose gimmick consisted of having a plastic phallus pop out of his instrument. "He had it in a case next to him and he didn't show it to me," says Torres of the penis sax, with some regret. He did not get the job.

One of his more demoralizing gigs consisted of hawking hair-salon packages on the street, approaching random pedestrians with the line, "Excuse me, can I ask you a question about your hair?" His total sales, he recalls, were "zero. None. Not a one."

This fraught period serves as inspiration for Torres' new film, "Problemista," a surreal, comedic fable about a Salvadoran immigrant who must navigate the confounding parallel realities of the New York art world and the U.S. immigration system as he attempts to secure a work visa. The film, from A24, lands in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, followed by a wide release in late March. It is a turning point for the actor-comedian, who not only stars in the movie but wrote and directed it.

There are few, if any, voices in U.S. comedy quite like Torres, a performer with a penchant for the odd, the arcane and the fantastically glam — he is evidence that darkly humorous realismo mágico can exist in sparkly human form. Torres first established himself as a writer on "Saturday Night Live," where he created legendary skits like "Papyrus" (in which Ryan Gosling is tormented over the title font used for "Avatar"). But he is perhaps best known for co-creating, with fellow comedians Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, the HBO cult favorite "Los Espookys," about a group of friends in an unnamed Latin American country who stage fake supernatural experiences.

"Problemista" likewise dwells in the absurd and unreal. Torres plays Alejandro, a guileless young dreamer who wants to design toys that teach children about the "joy of obstacles." Instead, he labors in a succession of bleak jobs as he tries to sort out his immigration status — including unsuccessfully hawking hair-salon packages on the street.

 

Among Alejandro's more challenging gigs is assisting a hot-tempered art critic turned curator named Elizabeth (an inspired Tilda Swinton in a Kool-Aid-colored wig), who suggests that she might sponsor his visa application. Elizabeth, however, is more focused in burnishing the reputation of her cryogenically frozen lover, Bobby (played by RZA), an artist of dubious skill who made paintings of eggs. ("They're not eggs, they're hope," he says in flashback. "They are a promise, possibilities, a mystery.")

Torres, 37, may share a professional resume with Alejandro, but he is nothing like the timid, shuffling character of the film. (Nor, for that matter, is he anything like the imperious Andrés of "Los Espookys," the otherworldly heir to a chocolate fortune.) Instead, over a pair of Zoom interviews I encounter a genial, self-assured writer and performer intrigued as much by process as by outcome. "There's something about making a movie," he says, "that feels like building a sand castle with friends."

Born in San Salvador in 1987, Torres is the eldest son of a civil engineer father and a mother who is an architect and fashion designer. From the start, his parents encouraged his creative proclivities. His mother, Tita de Torres, would help him fabricate custom Barbie houses out of cardboard. Barbie Dreamhouses, as far as he were concerned, were all wrong; he imagined Barbie in a loft. "That was the peak of opulence for me," he remembers.

It was in these design sessions with his mom, Torres says, "where I really found the joy of collaboration." The two, in fact, work together to this day: His mother helped design the fanciful playground depicted in an early scene in "Problemista."

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