Problemista Review | Country Boy, City Boy

by Andrew Parker

Problemista is a very funny comedy told from a unique perspective and a fresh voice. It’s also a harrowing portrait of struggle; an anxious film made to reflect an impatient, unequal world. The fact that the debut feature from writer, director and star Julio Torres is able to exist on both of those planes at once makes Problemista an even more impressive juggling act. Blending future forward surrealism with carefully reasoned social relevancy and cultural critiques, Problemista is purposefully and deeply humane chaos set amid urban sprawl.

Alejandro (Torres) is an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador trying to establish himself and land a job in New York City. His toys are unique, to say the least, and getting his foot in the door has proven almost impossible. When he loses his day job at a place that keeps rich people cryogenically frozen until science can figure out how to thaw them out and revive them, Alejandro is sent into a bit of a panic. As soon as he’s let go, he’s left with only a few weeks to find a new job and sponsor for his work visa or he’ll be asked to leave the country. He finds an unlikely job opportunity assisting a fine art critic and all around eccentric named Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the wife of the avant garde painter (RZA, seen in flashbacks) Alejandro was tasked with caring for at the cryogenics facility. Elizabeth is a demanding, short sighted, wildly selfish handful to put up with, and almost anyone who knows her well enough would probably tell Alejandro to run far, far away. But between all of her meltdowns, rants, and insults, it’s clear that Alejandro and Elizabeth see something in each other that no one else does, even if they’re stuck in two completely different worlds and social classes.

Problemista is very much an NYC story, which might make its appeal limited in some respects, but within this look at eternal hustle culture is a lot of heart, nuance, and thoughtfulness. Torres (best known for his work on Saturday Night Live and Los Espookys) isn’t afraid of getting surreal or whimsical with his work, but never to the detriment of what – for many people struggling in similar situations – is quite a realistic story. The loving relationship Alejandro has with his artist mother (Catalina Saavedra) is told in the style of a fable, with wonderful, witty narration from Isabella Rossellini doing a nice job of tying the story together across borders and generations of these characters. Dream-like asides that involve a visual interpretation of the sketchy hellscape that is Craigslist (played by Larry Owens) and squabbles between Alejandro and Elizabeth as epic battles between a wimpy knight and a mythical hydra are playful and inventive without ever speaking down to the overall experience the protagonist is going through.

Without these flights of fancy, Problemista might be too real to be enjoyable or humorous. The whole concept of a naive newbie working for a tyrannical, demanding boss has been done before, but Torres (in his capacities as a writer, director, and performer) and Swinton find unique ways to take the edge off by giving both characters necessary moments of clarity and connection. It can all fall apart at any time because Elizabeth is an almost terminally broken person who thinks everyone and everything is out to give her grief, but Alejandro is always willing to try meeting her on common ground, even if it takes a massive shouting match to get there. Swinton delivers yet another exceptional performance to tack onto her growing list of accolades, and her uncanny ability to switch between acting psychotic and being deeply, empathetically wounded is unparalleled here. And much to his credit, Torres keeps up with her perfectly.

But the relationship between the two primary characters is only scratching the surface of Problemista. The much more enlightening and thoughtful moments come from observing Alejandro trying to navigate governmental bureaucracies, corporate power structures, and employment laws that all seem stacked against him. Although Torres portrays this sense of impending doom with the old school visual motif of a metaphorical hourglass running out of sand, the tension of Problemista could be straight out of a harrowing drama or a Safdie brothers thriller. Through his performance and astutely observational screenplay, Torres perfectly captures what it’s like to be caught in situations that feel impossible to navigate, even with the cleverest of minds and hardest of hustles. Elizabeth can’t fully comprehend what her younger assistant is going through because she’s protected by white privilege and reputation that has been built up over time, but her own hustle and the threads that bridge the gap between their shared experiences are obvious, and the warmth between them certainly isn’t shallow. Problemista excepts and loves its characters on their own terms, even when they make damaging or questionable decisions.

If Problemista was a thriller or drama, it would still be a tremendous film, but the fact that Torres is willing to go the extra mile to make these struggles seem darkly comedic makes it something even rarer. It also makes it more relatable to an audience of new immigrants, struggling artists, and anyone who feels isolated, alone, and unrepresented in a big city who can understand precisely what Alejandro – and even Elizabeth, to a certain extent – are going through. It’s a straight shot right to the heart and fallacy of hustle culture and how it ties into the myth of making it in the big city. 

Problemista is now playing in Toronto (including at TIFF Lightbox), Montreal, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg, and Whitby. It opens in Calgary on Friday, March 29.

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