They say, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. That little saying neatly sums up Julio Torres’ SXSW headlining film, Problemista. Doing its best Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO) impression, and ironically being distributed by A24 films as well, the former Emmy-nominated SNL writer crafts an absurdly original immigrant comedy that’s 100% off-the-walls bonkers. But despite being of the same vein as this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Torres and his dynamic co-star, the always superb Tilda Swinton, can’t quite capture the same emotional heights as EEAAO.
Torres not only writes and directs but he also stars as Alejandro, an aspiring toy-designer who journeys from El Salvador to New York City with big dreams of “making it” at Hasbro. But as he soon discovers, big city dreaming comes with mountainous obstacles and no help whatsoever, especially for immigrants. Thankfully, though, as one door closes at Alejandro’s cryogenic freezing job, another one opens with an eccentric art-world outcast named Elizabeth (Swinton). She promises to sign off on Alejandro’s quickly expiring work visa if he can help organize an art show featuring her frozen husband’s (played by RZA) old egg-painting collection.
Problemista flounders at its onset, erratic in its focus and flat in its delivery. There are well-earned chuckles peppered throughout but its purpose remains muddied until its third act. Yes, we understand the stakes, Alejandro’s initial loss of employment puts him on the clock to deportation and his only hope is to do whatever is necessary to get Elizabeth to sign off as his sponsor and extend his work visa. Even if that means bearing witness to and giving validation to all her erratic social tantrums, like berating a server at a small restaurant or surrendering to her never-ending demand that he learns how to use the antiquated system FileMaker Pro. You see, Elizabeth comes off as a bit of a “Karen”, which Alejandro learns to handle with his overactive imagination, one that’s captured continuously throughout the film in a surreal manner and always keeps the audience in tune with what he’s thinking and feeling. However, all of this wackiness, as silly and somewhat entertaining as it may be, feels like a trade-off for a deeper, more meaningful story that fails to unveil itself until the final minutes.
Admittedly, though, when Problemista pulls back the curtains and finally delivers the changing of the guard, where the student becomes the master, we’re given a soulful understanding of what exactly Julio Torres is trying to say about navigating the bureaucratic world of U.S. Immigration Services and demanding social respect in a place where that isn’t always given to foreign-born workers. All in all, Problemista serves as another quirky, comedy-first title from A24, but one that struggles to harness its focus effectively enough to pack a desirable emotional punch.