Review: Quirky 'Problemista' a Wonderfully Surreal Journey Critiquing the American Dream

Megan Kearns READ TIME: 3 MIN.

The American Dream is something we're all supposed to strive to achieve. But what happens when those aspirations transform into a labyrinthine, colossal challenge?

"Problemista" possesses a creative voice and a singular vision. A surreal, quirky, and whimsical comedy infused with absurdist humor and elements of magical realism, the film provides a commentary on the challenges immigrants face and critiques the myth of the American Dream.

Written, directed by, and starring Julio Torres, who's gay, "Problemista" is his directorial debut. Torres was a "Saturday Night Live" writer and the co-creator, writer, and co-star of series "Los Espookys."

Born in El Salvador, Alejandro (Julio Torres) dreams of designing toys. His artist mother (Catalina Saavedra) encourages his flourishing imagination. He crafts toys and games that are utilitarian and challenging, as he finds toys are "too preoccupied with fun." He immigrates to the U.S. to apply to Hasbro's "talent incubator program."

After losing his job at an agency that cryo-freezes people in order for them to be resuscitated someday in the future, Alejandro desperately needs to find a sponsor for his work visa, which is about to run out.

At the agency, he meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art critic whose artist husband (RZA, imbuing his character with a gentle sensitivity), Bobby, undergoes cryo-freezing. Alejandro becomes Elizabeth's assistant hoping she will sponsor him, while Elizabeth focuses on keeping Bobby frozen until she can procure him a lavish art show.

While Alejandro works for Elizabeth, he must also jump through hoops with numerous tasks: Listen to her drone on about using a particular software, obtain Bobby's paintings, and make amends with an artist (Greta Lee, astounding in "Past Lives") Elizabeth angered. To make ends meet and get cash quickly, Alejandro takes a sex work job washing windows for a queer client with a cleaning kink.

Subverting the myth of the American Dream in order to critique it, "Problemista" uses bold imagery of a never-ending labyrinth – boxes upon boxes of rooms, which Alejandro crawls in and out of, reminiscent of an M.C. Escher-esque dollhouse – to brilliantly and satirically expose the contradictions and hypocrisies of an immigration system that forces immigrants to endure demoralizing hurdle after hurdle.

It's vital to see an LGBTQ+ filmmaker make uncompromising art. Julio Torres first caught my attention as a delightful scene stealer in the wonderfully charming film "Together Together."

Tilda Swinton is a chameleonic actor with an uncanny ability to play any role in any genre. Torres and Swinton share a unique rapport. Perpetually demanding, Elizabeth berates everyone from colleagues to baristas. While one character calls her "a nightmare," that's not how Alejandro sees Elizabeth. While she's difficult to deal with, she's also fiercely loyal to Alejandro. They see a kindred affinity in each other. I liked their unconventional friendship.

I wish the characters were more fleshed out, feeling like fully developed, complex people. Instead, they exist as archetypes, which conversely makes complete sense considering the bizarre journey the characters embark on.

I like the film's weird and offbeat vibes. The film didn't entirely work for me, in particular some of its humor and its ending. But I would much rather have a film boldly and audaciously tell a strange story, even if imperfectly, than be safe and mediocre. I applaud Julio Torres' ambitious creativity and how his film brilliantly uses phantasmagorical imagery to tackle the challenges of immigration and the horrors of capitalism.The entertaining, quirky film takes a wonderfully surreal odyssey.

"Problemista" opens in limited theaters March 1, 2024 and nationwide March 22, 2024.

by Megan Kearns

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