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Review: “Problemista” combines surreal comedy and poised satire

Courtesy A24

By Jay Collura     4/16/24 10:41pm

Score: ★★★½

It’s a shame that I didn’t know about Julio Torres’ work before “Problemista” popped up on my radar. The Salvadoran comedy writer is a collaborator with many of the current best voices in comedy — he is a co-showrunner for the HBO show “Los Espookys” alongside Fred Armisen and was a writer on SNL from 2016 to 2019. “Problemista,” however, sees Torres taking center stage as he directs, writes and stars. The inherent gamble of this immense level of authorship ultimately pays off, as Torres has created an intensely reflective coming-of-age story filtered through a surreal, kaleidoscopic sense of humor — a unique combination and subsequent balance that will leave you wishing you knew about Torres’s work sooner.

The film follows Alejandro (Julio Torres), an immigrant from El Salvador who has moved to New York City to become a famous toymaker. After being laid off from his job at a cryogenics facility, Alejandro is then forced to find a new job; if he fails to, his work visa will expire and he will be forced to return to El Salvador. 

This establishes one of the film’s primary throughlines of satire. Alejandro is constantly bouncing between petty jobs and grimy New York subways, so he can support himself through the costly immigration process. As Alejandro continues, the premise leads to increasingly insane, humorous situations that escalate both comedically and tragically, as the absurdity plays to both. By making the moments of tragedy happen in psychedelic, surreal settings, Torres extracts the humor from bleak moments without undercutting the sharp frustrations created by America’s border policy.

Simultaneously, Alejandro encounters Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an eccentric, aggressive Karen-type married to the ‘cryogenically frozen’ artist under Alejandro’s care at his prior job. Elizabeth is the vessel through which the film communicates Alejandro’s growth, and the film heavily relies on the dynamic between the two characters. Elizabeth is confident, brash and harsh, a perfect foil to Alejandro’s quiet, compliant and kind personality. 

Swinton’s performance, however, gives this character a surprising amount of complexity — her erratic gestures and booming line deliveries make her feel actively threatening yet totally incompetent, playing into the themes of manipulation the film explores. Swinton is usually limited to more quiet, reserved roles, so seeing her take a huge swing amplifies her moments of humor.

It feels weird making it this far without explicitly mentioning the comedy — much of the work is done by the premise itself, but each twist and turn of that premise is rendered in absurd terms. The film feels like a visualization of Torres’s mind and his creative reimagining of what happened in his own life. Every joke is so specific while drawing upon such a wide array of cultural moments and personal feelings that it is clear that these metaphors have been brewing inside Torres’s mind for a long time. If you don’t find surrealist, oddball comedies funny, stay far away from this film.

The problem is, however, that I am unsure of how well the film balances all of this. Every sentence I have written seemingly introduces a new concept, and watching the film feels the exact same way. I haven’t even mentioned Alejandro’s mother, a recurring character, Isabella Rossellini's excellent narration, or the fact that both RZA and Greta Lee are in this film.

Each of these moments and concepts adds a new idea that contributes to vague thematic clouds that float around the movie, and there are only a few moments where everything crystallizes, which exhausts the viewer. This is not to detract from the personality Torres infuses into the film, but rather to note that I am unsure of what the film amounts to — by creating something so intensely personal, Torres may alienate those who can’t get on the same wavelength. 

Balance is the core concept of “Problemista,” as Alejandro attempts to juggle the various pressures he faces and the harsh realities of living in New York City. Unfortunately, the film itself fails to balance its limitless creativity. Every moment feels carefully placed, but not all the pieces fit together. Thematically, this matches the film perfectly, but in practice, it feels uneven. Regardless, “Problemista” still has enough laughs to make it a worthwhile watch, and Torres’ infectious energy should continue to spread.

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