Toy story

‘Problemista’ shows great promise for Julio Torres

Julio Torres (left) and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista." Courtesy: A24

Alejandro dreams of toys. Not crazy, outrageous toys or toys that bring excitement and pleasure, but pensive, melancholy toys reminding kids that time is finite and our actions meaningless. There’s a toy truck with a slowly leaking tire, a Cabbage Patch doll with an overactive social media life to compensate for its underactive social life, a Barbie doll with one hand behind its back and fingers crossed — you get the idea. It’s little wonder Hasbro hasn’t called Alejandro about that creative development internship.

But here’s the thing: If Alejandro doesn’t get the internship — and the migrant status sponsorship that goes with it — then he’ll have to go back to El Salvador. But to even apply for the Hasbro internship, Alejandro must live in the U.S. His immigration status bars him from earning money to pay for essentials like housing and food until he gets the internship or finds a sponsor. He has one month to accomplish all this, and the rent was due yesterday. Yossarian was caught in only one Catch-22; Alejandro is surrounded by them.

Written, directed by and starring Julio Torres, Problemista is a little like Barbie when it comes to speechifying the daily plights of those not at the center of society, and a lot like Terry Gilliam when it comes to visually interpreting those plights with irreverence and imagination. It’s quite a feature debut from the 37-year-old.

Alejandro (Torres) spends much of his life in a make-believe world of dragons, knights and symbols. But it doesn’t feel so make-believe when you consider the colorful characters surrounding him — from the crimson-haired art critic Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), who spends her days harassing tech support agents, to Alejandro’s ever-expanding slate of roommates packed into a tiny apartment that’s been divvied up and subleased 10 times more than the landlord knows.

Most of Problemista revolves around Alejandro and Elizabeth. Alejandro comes to work as her assistant because she needs someone who can use FileMaker Pro. He needs sponsorship, so Alejandro lies through his teeth and takes the position with no promise of compensation beyond hope. The joke’s on Elizabeth. No one knows how to run FileMaker Pro.

Elizabeth’s feverish need to utilize the workflow software stems from her desire to help her husband, Bobby (RZA), put on a show. Bobby was a painter of eggs — yes, the kind that comes from a chicken and you buy in cardboard cartons at the grocery store — and no one took him seriously. 

Then Bobby came down with a terminal disease and decided to have himself cryogenically frozen — or cryogenically euthanized, I’ll leave the movie to expound on that joke — and then thawed out once they could cure his ills or he became famous. Whichever comes first, I guess.

Problemista is funny. It’s also quite clever. Swinton is glorious as Elizabeth, but what’s new? Instead, the revelation here is Torres, who is beautifully vulnerable in front of the camera and engagingly creative behind it. He also plays deadpan with the best of them. I know Torres isn’t exactly a discovery in the world of entertainment — he’s been working as a writer and comedian for a decade now — but Problemista feels like an announcement that he’s got plenty to say and the visual language to say it. 

ON SCREEN: Problemista opens in wide release on March 22.


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