Problemista Review: Julio Torres’s Wannabe Satire Succumbs to Grating Silliness

The film makes a convincing case for Torres’s belief in art as a narcissistic act of self-care.

Problemista
Photo: A24

You will probably laugh the first time Alejandro (Julio Torres) walks though the frame in Problemista, seemingly bouncing off the ground before gliding across it, almost as if he were walking on eggshells—or paintings of them. (More on those in a bit.) Which makes sense, given that this aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who’s looking for a co-signer for his visa so that he can remain in the United States is very wary of angering the powers that be who are holding him back from his dreams in both visible and invisible ways.

But somewhere around the fourth or fifth time that Torres performs this dormouse shimmy in his feature-length directorial debut, the gag lapses into the grating. What initially scans as a reflection of a young man’s existential fear of disrupting the order of the universe becomes a literalization of how Torres tentatively circles his themes with deadpan moroseness before banging on an argument with a sanctimony that recalls nothing less than a Disney movie.

Alejandro loses his job at Freeze Corp, where individuals are cryogenically frozen—like Walt Disney himself was once rumored to have been—so that they can be awakened in the future, after accidentally unplugging the pod of artist Bobby Ascencio (RZA). That premise is a fun articulation of the chess term that gives the film its title, even if it mostly exists to bring Alejandro into the orbit of Bobby’s eccentric and abrasive wife, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a former art critic who’s trying to get a gallery to exhibit 13 of her husband’s egg paintings.

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By his typically meek standards, Alejandro—or Ale to his mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), back in El Salvador—stands up for himself at work, pointing out that his mistake didn’t compromise Bobby’s body, but he still loses his job. And at its most un-insistent, Problemista lets it hang in the air, unspoken, that Ale would still be employed if he weren’t perceived to be expendable by a system that thrives on the unchecked exploitation of minorities.

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Once Ale loses his job, though, the film retreats into a fantasy world where he works out his angst over various indignities in ways that are as cutesy as they are redundant. Within this space, Ale is clad in armor that barely protects him against a Bank of America customer service representative over a series of overdrafts and, most prominently, his new boss, Elizabeth, over her obsession with the syncing of her work databases between multiple devices. Ale has some very funny ideas for toys that he hopes will land the attention of Hasbro, such as Cabbage Patch Kids with smartphones and dating lives, but you wouldn’t know that from the self-pitying triteness of this place where everyone barks at him like Ursula litigating her claim to Ariel’s legs.

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Problemista lingers inside this realm for so long that it feels like we’re catching our breath whenever it returns to the real world. And yet, a funny and poignant scene in which Ale turns a trick only underscores how much the film doesn’t give the character a clear sense of sexual identity—or, at least, convey how his sexual frustrations may be part of what prevents him from breaking through his emotional roadblock. You certainly grasp his attraction for a work rival, Bingham (James Scully), less than you do his propensity for airing unfounded resentments, such as the belief that people can receive a Guggenheim fellowship for being cute.

To be fair, Torres understands that Ale lives in a safe space of his own making and doesn’t know how to crawl out of it. In his calls to Dolores, we sense the roots of his creativity but also that he suffers from a kind of mama’s boy syndrome. Maybe one day he’ll realize that Dolores actually made him stronger, but for now, all he knows is that he needs to feed off of Elizabeth’s exhausting Maleficent-by-way-of-Miranda-Priestly chutzpah in order to make it in the world.

In another one of those quirks for quirk’s sake, Isabella Rossellini colorlessly narrates Problemista as if it were a fairy tale of sorts. Maybe this casting choice is another way that Torres is working through his, and by extension Ale’s, mother complex. Or maybe he thinks that Rossellini is, like Bingham, a nepo baby and the casting is a joke at the actor’s expense. (Given the film’s propensity toward smugness, the latter is more likely the case.)

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Problemista swings so erratically for the fences that Torres doesn’t lock on a target long enough for the film to work up a head of steam as satire about the art world and how it thrives on nepotism, let alone one about the frustrations of the immigration process. But despite its lack of precision, the film makes a very convincing case for Ale’s frustrations with a world that doesn’t coddle him like his mother, as well as for Torres’s belief in art as a narcissistic act of self-care.

Score: 
 Cast: Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Isabella Rossellini, Catalina Saavedra, James Scully, Laith Nakli, Spike Einbinder, Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel, Greta Lee, Larry Owens  Director: Julio Torres  Screenwriter: Julio Torres  Distributor: A24  Running Time: 98 min  Rating: R  Year: 2023

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle, his writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

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