Film Review: Problemista | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, April 20th, 2024  


Studio: A24
Director: Julio Torres

Mar 08, 2024 Web Exclusive
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Julio Torres’ whimsical feature film debut as a writer and director, Problemista, in which he also stars, takes place primarily in the urban jungle of New York. Viewers will also find themselves, however, in the literal jungle of El Salvador, in the past, the present, the future, traveling through time toward the future, and in a black void where visual metaphors abound. For the most part, the film exists in our reality but certain details exist just outside of it.

Let me try to explain: Torres plays Alejandro, or Ale, a Salvadoran immigrant who came to New York in pursuit of his dream of being a toy designer, specifically for Hasbro. While his application for the toy company’s “Talent Incubator Program” is in limbo, Ale’s work visa is sponsored by his employer FreezeCorp, a company that facilitates cryogenic freezing for artists who hope to wake up in the future. After a minor mishap gets him fired, Ale finds Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), whose husband’s body is stored at FreezeCorp, raging against price hikes in the lobby. Later she agrees to sponsor Ale’s work visa, if and only if he can help her pull off a gallery exhibit of her husband’s paintings. From here on, Ale’s legal standing in the United States hinges on the whims of a she-devil.

Given his tenuous position, Ale acquiesces to nearly everyone he meets. Wherever he goes, he takes teeny-tiny, inoffensive steps, as if to shrink himself. Whenever he finds himself in a particularly difficult position, however, he knows exactly what to say to open a door for himself. What about immigrants battling the system without such communication skills? As we see in the office of Ale’s immigration lawyer, they simply fade away before our eyes.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot: no less than Isabella Rossellini serves as narrator.

Problemista is ostensibly a comedy and is chaotic. On its face, it’s a movie that could just be out for a few laughs (and it does achieve that), but it’s also meaningfully complex and made with great care.

Here Swinton is exceptional. She gives her comedic performance as much consideration and depth as she would a dramatic role. As Elizabeth, she is a sight to see with frizzy hair hued like rhubarb—roots and all. Elizabeth acts tough but is fragile. She shouts “Don’t scream at me!” to anyone that says something she doesn’t like. She has a remarkable incompetence with technology, ranting about “how to get into the iCloud” and inadvertently leaving the flashlight of her smartphone on nearly all the time.

The supporting cast is strong, as well. RZA aptly plays an earnest artist as Elizabeth’s husband Bobby. Greta Lee plays Bobby’s one-time lover in a brief yet potent appearance. And Larry Owens deserves special recognition for playing Craigslist incarnate; his depiction is something like a fearsome digital version of Ursula from The Little Mermaid.

The film’s use of actual brand names is bold. Besides Hasbro and Craigslist, there’s also repeated and specific mention of the application FileMaker Pro (“the Cadillac of spreadsheets”) to hilarious effect. Then there’s a virtuosic takedown of Bank of America’s overdraft fees that may compel you to rise to your feet, mid-film, in ovation. (As an Easter egg, of sorts, the joke continues in legal fine print toward the end of the credits.)

An original score by Robert Ouyang Rusli does a lot of the heavy lifting in carrying us through the film, emotionally. In one particular instance of sonic dexterity the score communicates to us simultaneously that, 1.) yes, we should be horrified by the half-eaten food Ale has found in Elizabeth’s purse, but also 2.) there is a new hope for both of them in their newfound partnership.

For all the film’s strengths, there are faults to be found too. A fantastical playground of Ale’s childhood imagination is rendered in wonky fashion, as if for a Syfy Channel made-for-TV movie (think Sharknado). And disappointingly, the plotline for Ale’s mother is undercooked, leaving us wanting more. But really, the sum total of such nitpicking is small enough to be negligible. Besides, there are so many fine details that do work between set design, props, wardrobe, and not least of all Ale’s perpetual cowlick.

For as much as this film is, Torres and his collaborators are able to hold it all together. It’s admirably coherent. With so many gimmicks, you might assume all meaning is lost. But the film’s messages of devotional love and holding out hope while on an impossible path shine through. It will be interesting to see what other ideas Torres turns into films in the future. Assuming he doesn’t opt for a premature deep freeze himself, I think we can expect to see several. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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