Problemista Melissa Anderson

A young Salvadoran immigrant in New York City navigates cryogenics, art-world shenanigans, and challenges both real and surreal in Julio Torres’s debut feature film.

Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in Problemista. Courtesy A24.

Problemista, written and directed by Julio Torres,
now playing in select theaters

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Among the high points of Julio Torres’s 2016–19 tenure as a writer for Saturday Night Live was “Wells for Boys,” a fake ad for a Fisher-Price product in its “sensitive-boy line.” A wide-eyed emo stripling—overly attached to his fiercely protective mother, seemingly his only ally in a cruel world hostile to his tender feelings—gazes at his reflection in the pit’s water, running a tiny finger around the edge of the structure and whispering a secret to it. “He’ll grow up to have a wildly passionate and successful creative life. But not just yet,” promises the voice-over.

A similar scenario—in which the drama of the gifted child is mined for comedy—serves as the prologue for the intermittently funny Problemista, the first feature directed by Torres, who is also the film’s writer and star. In a lush, lysergically green expanse in El Salvador, chubby-cheeked moppet Alejandro (portrayed at this age by Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel) and his doting artist mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), exist in idyllic bliss, a world of unfettered imagination. “She gave him everything, so he wished for everything,” Isabella Rossellini narrates over scenes of this symbiotic dyad at play. “But she had a recurring dream of Alejandro leaving the safe world she created where he’d face the dangers she tried so hard to keep him from,” she continues, as wee Alejandro peers not into a placid well but into an ominous cave, a pair of glowing red eyes staring back at him.

Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel as young Alejandro and Catalina Saavedra as Dolores in Problemista. Courtesy A24.

The hostile terrain adult Alejandro must navigate is New York, where he shares a grim Bushwick apartment with two others and dreams of becoming a toy designer for Hasbro. Alejandro’s ideas—Cabbage Patch dolls with their own smartphones, a Slinky that refuses to travel down a flight of steps—sound like skits that Torres might have spitballed in the SNL writers’ room. In fact, the broad strokes of Alejandro’s biography mirror those of the man who created him, at least in his pre-SNL days: Torres also grew up in El Salvador, the son of a devoted designer/architect mother who would help realize his fanciful ideas; lived in that same rapidly gentrifying northern Brooklyn neighborhood with two roommates (one of whom, the comedian Spike Einbinder, plays a flatmate of Alejandro’s); and had to navigate the labyrinthine, punitive US immigration system to secure his visa status. Both Torres and his character are gay vegans.

Julio Torres as Alejandro in Problemista. Courtesy A24. Photo: Jon Pack.

Problemista sags when it becomes an overly earnest and self-regarding salute to Torres’s struggling years. A cowlicked innocent, Alejandro moves through the cruel city with all the confidence of a just-born foal, clutching the straps of his backpack as one would a security blanket. (When it comes to inhabiting one-dimensional characters, Torres is much more captivating as Andrés, the vain, spoiled scion he played on Los Espookys, the far-out Spanish-language comedy he cocreated for HBO that ran for two seasons.) While the naïf desperately waits to hear from Hasbro that he’s been selected for its talent-incubator program, he punches the clock at FreezeCorp, a boutique cryogenics lab. Here he oversees the maintenance of the frozen body of Bobby Ascencio (RZA), a terminally ill artist who hopes to thaw out in a future when his canvases—mostly paintings of eggs—fetch high prices.

But a mistake on the job gets Alejandro sacked; with his work visa now imperiled, the threat of deportation looms. Potential salvation arrives when, leaving FreezeCorp, he crosses paths with Bobby’s not-quite-widow, Elizabeth, a vengeful, vituperative art critic played with unhinged glee by Tilda Swinton, the film’s most reliable source of laughs. The cranberry-haired termagant offers Alejandro a freelance gig as her assistant, with the tantalizing promise that the work will become a permanent post and thereby allow the delicate daydreamer to stay in the country. (In his lean years, Torres worked as an art archivist for painter John Heliker’s estate.)

Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth and RZA as Bobby in Problemista. Courtesy A24. Photo: Jon Pack.

Alejandro equably aids Elizabeth in her monomaniacal mission to find a prestigious gallery for a retrospective of Bobby’s ovoid oeuvre. Elevating her character’s Vesuvian rages to arias of extreme entitlement, Swinton keenly grasps the terrors inflicted by Gotham’s unyielding art-world eldresses. Some of her most serrated barbs cut all the more lethally for being so NYC-specific. “The good doctor—Pace University, was it?” Elizabeth assails Alejandro’s FreezeCorp boss, disparaging her med-school credentials. Any encounter the harridan has with someone whose job it is to help—a restaurant employee, a customer-service representative—immediately becomes a showcase for high dudgeon, indignation that Swinton perfects with hair-trigger responses. Barely in her seat for a nanosecond, Elizabeth shrieks at a café server busy taking another table’s order, “I’ve been waiting a very long time. Are you closed?”

Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in Problemista. Courtesy A24. Photo: Jon Pack.

If nothing else, Problemista pleasantly reminds us how gifted a comedian Swinton can be, particularly when she’s unburdened of the various facial prosthetics that she’s often had to sport in Wes Anderson’s mannered gewgaws. Here, with just a wig (the hairpiece crowned with undyed roots) and a few extravagantly shoulder-padded blazers in bold primary colors, Swinton fills in the contours of the battle-ax; Elizabeth’s sartorial choices alone suggest she’s still clinging to some past glory from the ’80s, to empyreal nights spent at Area, perhaps.

Julio Torres as Alejandro and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth in Problemista. Courtesy A24. Photo: Jon Pack.

Alejandro, in contrast, remains a paragon of goodness and patience, steadfastly accommodating his boss’s most outrageous demands and idiosyncrasies (a running joke about Elizabeth’s insistence on using FileMaker Pro repeats three times too many). In some of the gimcrack surrealist sequences scattered throughout Problemista, Torres imagines Alejandro as a knight in shining armor. In addition to this corny cosplay, Alejandro, horrified to learn of his negative account balance, tries to appeal to the humanity of a Bank of America rep, bemoaning the institution’s overdraft fees and the fact that the financial giant “is just profiting from people’s misfortunes.” This feeble mewl of righteous protest makes America Ferrara’s monologue in Barbie seem like the SCUM Manifesto in comparison.

Thanks to the brevity of Torres’s earlier genres—the network-TV skit, the outré half-hour cable show—life lessons and tidy endings weren’t required. But they are dispiritingly de rigueur in the American indie comedy. And thus Elizabeth, so thrilling in her relentless gorgon-hood, must be softened and redeemed as an oracle of wisdom, telling Alejandro to always insist on the impossible, to never settle for no. Maybe his next toy idea will be a Cabbage Patch Kid named Karen who insists on speaking to the manager.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns and the author of a monograph on David Lynch’s Inland Empire from Fireflies Press.

A young Salvadoran immigrant in New York City navigates cryogenics, art-world shenanigans, and challenges both real and surreal in Julio Torres’s debut feature film.
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