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Review: In art-world comedy 'Problemista,' it's all about surviving Tilda Swinton at her scariest

Joshua Rothkopf, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The sharpest movies about New York's art scene — including 1996's "Basquiat," starring future "American Fiction" grump Jeffrey Wright — capture something relentless about the city. Desperation isn't far from mind, nor the disparities of wealth and power between artists, critics and, up in the clouds, collectors and dealers. Maybe there's a way to navigate it all, if you have the right strategy. Or several.

"Problemista," the first feature of its writer, director and star, boyish comedian Julio Torres, adds a whole new wing to this tiny gallery of movies. (They come around so infrequently, it's exhilarating to see one this confident.) Deliriously weird yet relatable, the film is, at root, an immigration tale, more autobiographical than semi: Alejandro (Torres), from El Salvador like his creator, dreams of making weird toys for Hasbro, but faces the ticking clock of an expiring visa and deportation.

It's Ale's detour through the catty art world, though — and into the orbit of the film's alternately frightening and recognizable title character — that transports "Problemista" to a rarely explored realm of devilish mentorship. Here he'll be tasked with the impossible. He will also find self-worth, a strange, ferocious kinship and maybe even a sponsor. If I call the movie a love story, don't laugh. Torres has made it with love in his heart.

From the start, we're in the company of a filmmaker who wants to try things. A prologue in a grassy magical playground (the movie is narrated by Isabella Rossellini, supplying instant cool) leads to a trash-strewn New York marked by ominous signs: a dangling purse trapped in the jaws of a subway door, prescription vials spilling out; an immigration office where rejected applicants simply vanish mid-conversation. Cowed by his own backpack, Alejandro tiptoes through America timidly, afraid to announce himself. Torres gives his character constant bedhead and it makes sense: He's in a waking nightmare no less warped than the one from "Beau Is Afraid."

Then she arrives: Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), her hair and eyes in a perpetual code-red meltdown. The fury is palpable. No waiter is safe. No tech-support guru is helpful. Her purse contains a tangle of keys, adapters and what looks like a half-eaten chicken sandwich. To call it the most unhinged performance in a career that already contains "Trainwreck," "Michael Clayton" and "Snowpiercer" is almost doing Swinton dirty.

Elizabeth's husband, we learn, was a gentle artist, Bobby (a persuasive RZA), who painted unsalable oils of eggs but opted for premature cryogenic freezing, hoping to be revived in a future era in which he and his work would be better understood. Ale is getting laid off from the freeze lab when Elizabeth seizes on him, a potential helper. Could he carry Bobby's canvases back to her '80s-era studio loft? Could he co-curate a show of Bobby's work? Could he soothe the rift with one of Bobby's former lovers (Greta Lee) and get a missing egg painting back in the collection? Could Elizabeth, in turn, become his lifesaving signature? Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The plot develops in this vaguely Faustian way, always with the threat of incipient catastrophe, and it allows Torres to get at something not often seen in these art-world movies — an entitled hauteur that also, somehow, contains an invitation for comradeship. Ale will become Elizabeth's project, so long as he can hold her attention. His status as an unpaid freelance assistant is made wobbly by a secret inability to operate FileMaker Pro and, worse, the arrival of a languorous, handsome intern, Bingham (James Scully), who comes from a place of such ridiculous privilege he seems to float. (Of a past car accident, Bingham purrs, "I probably ran over somebody, but my dad just fixed it.")

Race plays an undeniable part of "Problemista" and Torres, formerly a writer for "Saturday Night Live," has gone fearless when he could have just made something funny. It brings to mind another New York art movie, "Six Degrees of Separation," which had the elegance of John Guare's play to bind its elements more firmly. Torres gets at serious ideas via occasionally unserious methods. Turning the want-ads-site Craigslist into a whispering junk-heap demon (Larry Owens) is inspired; turning Elizabeth into a mythological hydra that Ale must slay in a cave feels like cosplay.

But what Torres nails is breathtaking, especially that midnight anxiety at the ATM, the scanning for sketchy cash jobs online and, most sneakily and warmly, a blooming connection. Elizabeth sees Ale, sees him fully, and, in a lovely, utterly unsentimental moment, advises him, "Get a name and become a problem for them." He, in turn, learns to defuse her rages, standing agog at her rants, hypnotized by her force of nature. Eventually, he adopts her ways. She has made him a New Yorker — a gift, if you know how to use it.

 

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'PROBLEMISTA'

(In English and Spanish, with subtitles)

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

Running time: 1:38

How to watch: Now in theaters

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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