Film Review

Problemista

todayApril 4, 2024 29

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By – Gareth Jones

For fans of Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, Surrealism and Magical Realism, Michel Gondry

I was introduced to the genius of Julio Torres first by interviews with Seth Myers and then with his show on HBO Los Espookys, which also starred the hilarious Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega.  I was fascinated by this singular comedic style, his fashion taste, and his constantly changing hair color. Surreal, deadpan, with a flair for the absurd, yet utterly endearing like a lost puppy. I found out that he wrote for Saturday Night Live for a few years, including writing the hilarious “Papyrus” sketch.  I knew that I needed to stay on top of what this performer was going to create.

Early this year, A24 dropped the trailer for his feature film debut as a writer and director, Problemista.  I was immediately drawn to the influences (Michel Gondry in particular but also a strong magical realism)  I could see, but was curious to also see how Julio would make this his story and film.  The final hook that ensured that I would see this film was the casting of Tilda Swinton.  As soon as it was scheduled for the Sidewalk Film Theater (the only theater showing the film in Birmingham) I knew my weekend plans.

For those like me that have been entranced by Torres, this was a welcome reward.  It tells the story of Alejandro, a young man who has immigrated from El Salvador to New York in the hopes of securing a job with Hasbro as a toy maker..  What a year for Hasbro.  Between Barbie and this film they have been phenomenally open to being presented in a negative light.  Here, Alejandro, is applying to a toy designer incubator program, but has had no success.  As a result, he has taken a job at a company (FreezeCorp) that freezes people in the hopes that in the future, they will be revived to a new world.  Here, he is the caretaker of a frozen artist Bobby (majestically played by RZA, showing new range as an actor.)  He is fired when he accidentally unplugs Bobby, and he meets the worst nightmare of a person, the art critic wife of Bobby played to overwhelming perfection by Tilda Swinton.  He takes on a role as assistant to her in the hopes that she will sponsor him to stay in the United States.  Thus begins a love/hate bond between these two leads as they both try to figure out how to navigate the world.

Like Alejandro, Torres immigrated to the United States from El Salvador, and just like Alejandro’s mother, Julio’s mother is an architect.  However, although there are some parallels here it is definitely not an autobiography.  It connects to all artists who have to make sacrifices to succeed and it also reveals the infuriating Catch-22 immigration system.  It is presented visually here with a M.C Escher-like set of rooms that are all connected with Alejandro never able to access the actual key that he needs.

I must say that Torres is excellent in this role and holds his own with the epic scale of acting from Swinton.  It is quite different from his previous performances and the way that his face reflects suppressed anger and frustration builds empathy.  His walking with small bounces is also a great example of body language reflecting character.  Now, Tilda Swinton gets a role that she can absolutely devour.  She presents a truly terrifying Uber Karen at one moment, and then an heartbreaking mentor in others.  Everyone knows a person like Elizabeth, but rarely do we get to see the complete person that Swinton delivers.  I am hopeful that the Oscars remember this performance. In a near spotless career, she delivers one of her best performances.

The production design and costumes must also be highlighted for their inventiveness.  Each progressive outfit worn by Elizabeth outdoes the previous one, and with an independent film budget, the setpieces and effects match the mind of Torres and the characters.

I am eager to see what Julio Torrres does next, as he has delivered a personal work that is hilarious and heartbreaking, and collaborated with Tilda Swinton in a role that will not be forgotten.

Playing now at the Sidewalk Film Center

Written by: Gareth Jones

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