Problemista (2023)

1h 41min
Not released
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Alejandro (Julio Torres) is an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, struggling to bring his unusual ideas to life in New York City. As time on his work visa runs out, a job assisting an erratic art-world outcast (Tilda Swinton) becomes his only hope to stay in the country and realize his dream. From writer/director Julio Torres comes a surreal adventure through the equally treacherous worlds of New York City and the U.S. Immigration system.
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Theo Maltz, , Sheila Moikangoa,
Ali Herting, Dave McCary, Emma Stone, Julio Torres
Narrated By:
Isabella Rossellini
Julio Torres
Comedy, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Release Date:
Not released
Run Time:
101 minutes
DVD Regions:
Region 2

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Critic review

Problemista review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso

In a sea of similar A24 films vying for that perfect balance of weird surrealism and tender heart, it amazes me how well Problemista works with its almost whimsical staging of class struggle and mental hang-ups. A script such as this could easily get lost in its swirling elements of offbeat backstories, dreamlike depictions of online communication, and warped business ventures of depressing toys and cryogenic freezing. Yet, through it all, that heart remains firm, making the film so much more enduring beyond the easy hurdle of being strange for a few laughs.

This film's central figure, the young Alejandro (Julio Torres), holds this film together. Having grown up with his artistic mother in El Salvador, Alejandro has immigrated to New York City with high hopes of becoming a toy designer. The only problem is that his toy ideas communicate odd messages to children about the aspects of the world that might seem too mature to teach, such as a toy truck where the tires slowly deflate and a Cabbage Patch doll with awkward feelings about social media. Still, Alejandro doesn’t let his dreams die, even when forced to find work to stay in America.

Into Alejandro’s life stumbles Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art dealer as fiery as her red hair. She is desperately trying to preserve her cancer-diagnosed artist husband, Bobby (RZA), beyond just keeping him frozen. She wants to put on a gallery in honor of his odd paintings centered around eggs. Having recently been fired, Alejandro decides to help out this woman who may be willing to sign his papers to keep him in the US. However, Elizabeth is far from organized and one of the toughest employers to work with, considering her wild shifts in mood and tasks. Desperate, Alejandro seeks out other odd jobs, ranging from pitching scam products to fulfilling sexual favors. It’s starting to look like Alejandro won’t be in the US long, but Elizabeth may be the only one who inspires him most, even if she is difficult to be around.

Throughout the film, strange things can be seen as we dive into Alejandro’s active imagination. Growing up in an artistically rendered fantasy world developed by his mother, he views the world as more fantastical in his many interactions. When dealing with Elizabeth at her worst, he imagines her as a dragon almost begging to be slain lest she eat Alejandro alive. When searching for jobs on Craigslist, he envisions the website as a seductive genie (Larry Owens), tantalizing the young man with promises of money for taking odd jobs and speaking exclusively in the language of freelance job postings. When calling a Bank of America employee and begging for some sense of recognizing the inhuman nature of capitalism, he views this woman as a bitter soldier who states, “I stand with Bank of America,” before blowing his brains out.

Although the two characters are never diagnosed, it becomes clear that Alejandro is autistic and Elizabeth has ADHD. There are little clues here and there, but their interactions are key. Consider the sequence where Alejandro helps Elizabeth to her car, and she struggles to find her keys. The frazzled woman gets angry, believing the dealer who refused to sell might have stolen her keys. Looking out for this woman, Alejandro suggests they take each item out of her purse to find the keys, focusing on what can be controlled. They connect beautifully here and have some telling and comical moments, like when Alejandro pulls out a massive keyring, and Elizabeth says none are the car keys. Elizabeth’s determination inspires Alejandro when he achieves his dream of working at Hasbro.

Problemista may be too weird for some, but the perfect mixture of sweetness and surreality was absolutely my jam. The chemistry between Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton is brilliant, and the humor they evoke is hilarious, as when they debate the dated nature of FileMaker Pro. Torres’s direction is incredible for finding brilliant ways to make me smile and tear up at the most absurd stuff that genuinely works. The finale, where the friendship between Alejandro and Elizabeth reaches its pique, is so adorable that I left the theater with a big, dumb grin. This is such a charming film.

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