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Review: ‘Problemista’ is Equally Funny, Heartbreaking, and Absurd

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Writer and director Julio Torres also stars as Alejandro in Problemista. The film from A24 is Torres’ feature debut, after a career spent writing comedy at Saturday Night Live and the show Les Espookys, of which Torres is the writer and creator. Problemista is equally funny, heartbreaking, and absurd; at its heart, it is a character story about trying to cope and navigate an increasingly hostile life. 

The story of Problemista

A child in El Salvador, Alejandro’s greatest dream in life is to become a toy maker for the vaunted company Hasbro. He makes his way from his home and country and away from the safety of his mother (Catalina Saavedra) and her fantastical imaginings in search of bigger things.

Ale’s travels take him to a strange job at a Cryofacility in New York, where rich people about to die are frozen until society figures out how to wake them up and cure them. Cruelly, he’s fired from the job after a small mistake and, through a series of events, ends up working for Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) to try and keep his immigration status so he can get his dream job at Hasbro, which requires a United States address to be able to apply for work. 

Elizabeth is an art critic and the widow of a famous artist (entombed at the Cryofacilitiy) who is devoted to her artist husband’s memory. She is the awkwardly dyed-haired punk rock version of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, loud and tearing her way through the world despite the reactions of everyone around her. She’s obsessed with a database of her husband’s paintings, and that’s where Ale comes in. Ale becomes her “temporary” assistant, following along in her combat-boot stomp through the world as she tries to put together an art show to raise funds to keep her husband, Bobby (RZA), frozen.

Together (predictably), Elizabeth and Ale learn something from each other as they embark on their problem-laden quest. The ending is both expected and unexpected, and there are moments that, without spoiling it, will make you both cheer and cry. 

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista (A24)

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton as Alejandro and Elizabeth

As a character, Ale is difficult to root for at times because he is just so darn passive. He has big dreams (that are in themselves a meta-commentary on childhood and maybe through the idea that toys need to be less fun) and is willing to travel thousands of miles from his home and end up in NYC to follow them. This big journey is about the least passive thing one can do, and the disconnect between this and how Ale conducts himself in the world is a bit jarring. 

As Ale awkwardly shuffles through the world, he bumbles through his attempts to achieve his heart’s desire and get through the endless roadblocks that life keeps throwing at him. Like his clumsy shuffling, he shuffles through, trying to get through each day.

There’s a valid point in Problemista, too, that as immigrants, people are often unwilling to rock the boat for fear of reprisal about their immigration status. They are reluctant to become “Karens”, unlike Elizabeth, who is more secure and has no problem becoming a problem for others if it achieves what she wants. Ultimately, Ale achieves his dream and becomes a problem for others, and by standing up for himself, he gets what he wants.

While Tilda Swinton’s Elizabeth in doesn’t have hot dog fingers like in the similarly veined reality-busting film Everything Everywhere All At Once, she does have a set of regenerating Medusa heads in an equally interesting sequence. This is an apt representation of her character because she’s a bit of a dragon to everyone she meets.

Elizabeth is a walking and talking problem, and utterly unbothered about it. She bulldozes through the world, complaining loudly and fearlessly to those who stand in her way. It’s the opposite of Ale in many ways. It’s not that Elizabeth is unthoughtful or unloving. She deeply cares about her husband and his legacy, despite his indiscretions. She comes to care about Ale in a different way. 

Problemista works so well because of the tension between Elizabeth and Alejandro. Each character needs each other to be whole; without that, the film would fall apart. Underneath the character story in Problemista is a broader indictment of society as a whole. As an audience, we see as Ale literally navigates a stair and room maze of bureaucracy, fight off dragons, and go to deep scary places on the web all while trying to get through his day.

Final thoughts on A24’s Problemista

Problemista is an inventive, not-quite-horror movie that’s equally absurd, emotionally resonant, and deadpan funny from writer/director Julio Torres. It thoroughly blurs the line between reality and fiction. It cleverly tackles the real-life issues at the root of survival for artists, immigrants, and anyone trying to navigate endless bureaucracy in an inventive.

The movie is one you’ll want to sit with and ponder for a while after the credits, but it is absolutely worthy of seeing on the big screen because of the interesting and surreal magical sequences that are at the core of the main character’s coping mechanisms for a life that just keeps throwing up roadblocks. 

A24’s Problemista is now in theaters.  Do you plan on seeing this movie soon? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. 

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Ayla Ruby

I am a writer and interviewer based somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant. I love all things nerdy - but Star Trek and Spiderman have special places in my heart. Find me at @TulinWrites on Twitter. And visit my other website for more reviews and interviews: movieswetextedabout.com

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