Credit: A24
by Joshua Bogatin Featured Film Horizon Line

Problemista — Julio Torres

March 25, 2024

“Toys are too preoccupied with fun,” Alejandro (Julio Torres) declares in a cover letter to Hasbro during the opening of Torres’ debut feature film Problemista. It’s an amusing way to define Alejandro’s character and sell the film’s offbeat tone, but it’s also a dire philosophy for a film whose main asset is its cute, Gondry-esque penchant for off-kilter fun. In the story of Alejandro’s struggle to find a work sponsor so that he can remain in America and apply for a fellowship at Hasbro, Torres too often tilts the film away from its charming character study and toward a criticism of the U.S. immigration system, which waters down every drop of absurdity with a relentless literalness. When Alejandro finds out he only has 30 days to remain in the U.S., an hourglass in a warehouse gets flipped over; when someone’s time is up, they simply evaporate into thin air; the labyrinthian catch-22s of the immigration system are represented by — wait for it — a giant, Escher-esque labyrinth. Alejandro wants kids to learn life-lessons from his toys, and it’s funny to see him craft slinkies that don’t fall downward and cabbage patch kids with cold-sores, but that doesn’t mean you would ever want to actually play with these products. If only Torres, a natural fabulist with a keen sense of deadpan absurdity, realized how stultifying, patronizing, and boring moralizing can be.

Denied that aforementioned Hasbro fellowship, Problemista finds Alejandro biding his time while working at a cryogenics lab so he can maintain his visa while he waits to apply again. Fired for accidentally unplugging the tank of a frozen artist, Bobby (RZA), he ends up freelancing as an assistant to Bobby’s wife, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), in the hopes that she’ll eventually sponsor his visa before his 30-day grace period runs out. Tasked with fixing her filing system and finding a gallery willing to open a show featuring Bobby’s egg-inspired painting, the crux of the film is found in Alejandro’s tumultuous relationship to Elizabeth. A hellishly vicious boss incapable of talking without yelling, Swinton gives Elizabeth an enjoyably hammed-up demonic quality that doesn’t so much as balance Torres’ toned-down affectlessness as pave over it. She is the true star of the show, to a fault, and any emotional resonance the film has comes from her myriad failures as wife, art critic, and human being which Alejandro is constantly trying to both accept and mitigate. His journey, in contrast, feels washed-out and empty next to her layered suffering. His story is a portrait of a struggling artist whose struggles are nothing more than amusing anecdotes on the ladder to success, told by someone who has clearly made it to the other side of failure and can only really think kindly, not too critically, of his outrageous internships and funny, cringe-inducing experiences with Craigslist.

Problemista never really questions the ways in which Alejandro buys into the system in the first place, and the major problem with its critique of America, beyond its pervasive literalness, is how easily Torres accepts the system by default. The reason why Alejandro would actually desire to live somewhere so seemingly drab and oppressive is never brought up, let alone questioned, and it’s hard to take seriously Alejandro’s creative struggles when his be-all-end-all metric of success is working for Hasbro. Is there really nothing more artistically or spiritually fulfilling in this life than slaving away as an underling for a mediocre corporation? It’s a depressing vision reeking of capitalist realism and an unintentionally cynical view of the prospects for genuine art in today’s world.

DIRECTOR: Julio Torres;  CAST: Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Isabella Rossellini;  DISTRIBUTOR: A24;  IN THEATERS: March 22;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.