The Joyful Ache of Julio Torres’s Problemista

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Written By Pinang Driod

Alejandro, the protagonist of the film Problemista, is an aspiring toy designer who creates idiosyncratic renditions of classic objects. To him, every toy truck should come with a tire that slowly deflates to illustrate the concept of running out of time. Cabbage Patch Kids should hold cellphones that display worrisome notifications, such as an unexpected Venmo charge from a frenemy. My favorite is his concept for Barbies: His version of the doll keeps her fingers crossed behind her back. That way, as Alejandro puts it, she’s a woman full of “tension and intrigue.”

Problemista, written and directed by the comedian Julio Torres, works the same way: by putting a singular spin on something familiar, in this case a fish-out-of-water coming-of-age story. Torres, who plays Alejandro, is the offbeat comic voice behind some of Saturday Night Live’s most strangely melancholic sketches, such as “Papyrus,” and his goofy flourishes come through in the film. But within Problemista is a heartfelt core conveying something profoundly human. It’s a marvelous mixture of surrealism and social satire that depicts the American dream as a nightmare of bureaucracy and phone calls to customer service. There’s nothing more absurd, the film argues, than the mundane.

Take the reason for Ale’s presence in America in the first place. He wants to work for Hasbro, but the company accepts applications only from those living within the United States; there’s no “Other” option for him to check. And so Ale, after emigrating from El Salvador, must always be sponsored by an employer to keep his visa from expiring. When he loses his job, he begins working for Elizabeth (played by Tilda Swinton), a bitter art critic who promises him her signature if he helps her sell her late husband’s paintings. That sounds like the answer to his problem, except Ale can’t make money legally until his visa is renewed, which means he has to look for alternative ways to pay his rent and his immigration lawyers. Craigslist gigs aren’t always enough, so he has to overdraft his bank account, but the more debt he goes into, the lower his credit becomes, and the more his mother worries back home. All he wants to do is work in the States, but every step to making that happen only seems to create more problems.

Perhaps this all sounds too heavy for a comedy, but Torres finds the whimsy in Ale’s plight through fantastical sequences depicting his mindset. At one point, Ale gets lost in an impossible maze in which he must unlock a door using a key kept on the other side of said door. In another, Ale is dressed as a medieval knight crushed under rubble as he attempts to reason with a Bank of America representative. These moments would feel cartoonish were they not paired with some of the peculiar things Ale spots in the real world, such as a woman’s purse caught between subway doors and a child’s dollhouse abandoned between piles of trash bags on the sidewalk. In these images, Torres unearths the ridiculousness of what’s happening to Ale, emphasizing how resilience doesn’t have to only mean persevering through hardship. It can also mean being able to have a sense of humor.

This idea comes across strongest in Ale’s relationship with Elizabeth, an abrasive and demanding woman who irritates almost everyone she meets. Ale often pictures her as a dragon, a monstrous figure he must serve in exchange for her signature, but he can’t help but be awed by her, too. Her dream—to sell her husband’s silly paintings of eggs—is as zany as his, and she’s just as stubborn as he is. Ale finds her repulsive and compelling, the same way he feels about his adopted home, a city far too expensive for an immigrant artist like him. “We’re both so tired, Elizabeth,” Ale observes after they have an argument. “Let’s go sell some paintings.”

Like Elizabeth, Problemista isn’t for everyone. Swinton, given her character’s constant fury and obstinance, delivers most of her lines—or rather, outbursts—at an elevated decibel, through gritted teeth. The frantic score and loopy camerawork are often dizzying. And Torres’s detours into the imaginary can feel overindulgent at times; a scene in which Elizabeth embraces a rival played by Past Lives’ Greta Lee is an inventive and theatrical representation of the characters’ dramatic reconciliation, but it distracts from Ale’s story. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if Torres considers Elizabeth’s point of view entitled or earned.

And yet, I found myself charmed by the film’s chaotic efforts to capture that specific and unusual joy that can come from solving soul-sucking problems. Torres’s script is sharp and weird and deeply personal. He sprinkles in details that make even his most outlandish characters hilariously human, such as the flashlight on Elizabeth’s phone being perpetually, accidentally on. And it helps, too, that the great Isabella Rossellini narrates Ale’s journey, her voice lending the film a sweet gravity. Problemista may be entirely too much—as Torres likes to describe himself in his stand-up—but that’s what’s needed to evoke the acute madness that comes from dealing with the world. In the end, we’re all like Ale’s Barbie, just keeping our fingers crossed behind our back, hoping for the best.

Shirley Li is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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