The Fantastical, Fantastic Problemista Sees Julio Torres’ Inventive, Hilarious Debut

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The Fantastical, Fantastic Problemista Sees Julio Torres’ Inventive, Hilarious Debut

Anyone familiar with Saturday Night Live writer and Los Espookys co-creator Julio Torres’ idiosyncratic, fanciful sense of humor won’t be surprised to learn that his feature film debut, Problemista, is a delightfully erratic and wild ride. 

Problemista follows Alejandro (Torres), a young man who moves from El Salvador to Bushwick in the hopes of realizing his dreams as a toy maker. Getting the sponsorship he needs to remain in the United States proves to be a headache of epic proportions, but he sees a potential light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton): An eccentric, volatile and hostile art critic who spends her days picking fights with waiters and Apple Support technicians. Elizabeth solicits Alejandro to help get her cryogenically frozen husband Bobby’s (RZA) paintings into an art show, vowing to sponsor the young man should everything go to plan.

But, we all know that everything tends not to go as planned in these sorts of situations. Getting sponsored turns out to be a wholly Kafkaesque experience for Alejandro—an experience replete with a healthy dosage of ludicrousness that Torres highlights with magnificent maze-like sets that recall the wacky, dystopian office spaces of Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Torres remains committed to this level of grandiose magical realism throughout Problemista. When Alejandro and Elizabeth get into squabbles, for example, Torres imagines that the former is a knight and the latter a multi-headed monster, and they are duking it out with medieval swords. When Alejandro descends down the Craigslist rabbithole in search of side gigs, he is confronted by an all-knowing, mischievous figure (Larry Owens) who reads him job listings like they are materializing in a crystal ball.

These spectacular sets are a staggering showcase of Torres’ command over his unique aesthetic sensibilities and provide shrewd commentary on immigration and classism in a wholly inventive way. When identical rooms continue to emerge in Alejandro’s quest for sponsorship, for example, it is a picture that encapsulates the mundanity, claustrophobia and senselessness of this process in a way that words often fail to. And what better way to depict a Karen than as a red-eyed demon, literally fuming over a 20-plus-dollar goat cheese salad? In his willingness to experiment with the fantastical, Torres actually conveys the absurdity one often experiences as an immigrant living in the United States.

Despite the strength of Problemista’s fantasy, Torres doesn’t fall victim to leaning too heavily on the unreal. Using fast-paced cuts, editors Jacob Secher Schulsinger and Sara Shaw seamlessly weave the real and imagined worlds together until they become almost indistinguishable, expertly walking the delicate tightrope of believability, relatability and otherworldliness.

The fantasy sequences’ poignant commentary on immigration…are also funny as hell, as is  Problemista as a whole. Torres’ script is sharp and bitingly deadpan, with thoughtful, complex punchlines peppered throughout. Offbeat jokes involve subjects like paintings of eggs, and toys that discover strange rashes on their mouths. But Torres is responsible for the ludicrous cult-classic SNL masterpiece “Papyrus,” after all, so how surprised can you really be? He’s also the perfect Alejandro, with his dry, unflinching, straight-faced delivery highlighting the insanity of his situation. And while he could perhaps benefit from a little more emotional range, the rest of Problemista is flashy enough that an expressionless protagonist inevitably makes the whole experience that much more humorous.

But it is Swinton who steals the show in the comedy department, giving what is likely the funniest performance of her career. She plays Elizabeth with total unhinged, unrestrained abandon, absolutely flipping her lid when she can’t locate a photo in her camera roll, for example, and telling anyone who disagrees with her to “stop screaming at me.” Her performance is so delightfully gargantuan that she’s impossible to look away from and so exaggerated that it’s impossible not to be moved when notes of sincerity and softness shine through.

As is always the case with a first-time feature filmmaker, Torres has room to grow. He might have benefited from sacrificing one or two bits to focus on digging into Problemista’s moving emotional core, or provided his protagonist with more range. But this fearless, authentic debut showcases immense command of a unique and inventive form of humor, while touching on a very real issue with heart and candor.

Director: Julio Torres
Writer: Julio Torres
Stars: Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Catalina Saavedra, James Scully, Greta Lee, Larry Owens
Release Date: March 13, 2023 (SXSW)

Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.