Arts movie review

Problemista is mostly successful magical realism for the mundane challenges of life

A strong directorial debut for a clearly talented young comedian whose future work will be exciting to follow (especially if he irons out script and theme unevenness)



Directed by Julio Torres

Screenplay by Julio Torres 

Starring Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, and RZA 

R. In theaters.

Although magical realism has gotten more than its share of bestselling novels, it’s a genre that seems more challenging to pull off in film. Several recent big-budget attempts, like Three Years of Longing, have flopped in big ways. And while Everything Everywhere All At Once succeeded through perfect alchemy of cast, direction, and special effects, even that was still a highly expansive version of the genre.  

Young El Salvadoran comedian Julio Torres, who sharpened his teeth in the famed writers’ room of Saturday Night Live before creating the critical TV darling Los Espookys five years ago, dips his toe into the more mundane magical realism in his directorial debut Problemista, which just enjoyed its wide release opening courtesy of A24. The film is a strong first outing for a clearly talented young comedian whose future work will be exciting to follow (especially if he irons out some script and theme unevenness). Sitting down with Torres on Zoom for a Q&A last month, he was smiley and gracious, demurring compliments from myself and other critics and lighting up when talking about his film, Latino heritage, and early career. 

The movie starts in the boyhood of Alejandro, a kid in El Salvador whose wonder and imagination are stoked by the storytelling and worldbuilding of his mother. As foretold by a recurring vision she has where he ventures into a perilous and unknown cave, Alejandro grows up and emigrates to the United States, where he hopes to be a toy designer and where his dream employer, Hasbro, is headquartered. They'll only take applications from people in America, so he takes odd jobs to support himself while building a portfolio of tongue-in-cheek toy designs that remind their users of mortality, hopelessness, and the challenges of life.

When we meet adult Alejandro, he's living in Bushwick with two self-centered roommates and working for a strange, surreal cryogenic freezing company where he's tasked with caring for the frozen body of an artist who dedicated his unimpressive career to painting eggs. After making a mundane mistake (disconnecting the frozen body from backup electricity for mere moments), Alejandro is summarily fired. Needing to find other employment before he's sent back to El Salvador, he meets Elizabeth, the eccentric and exceedingly difficult spouse of the frozen artist. She offers to sponsor his visa if he helps her put on a show of the egg artworks of her cryogenically frozen husband. The rest of the film details their ever-more-complicated working relationship as Elizabeth subjects Alejandro to her progressively zanier and more frustrating whims in pursuit of memorializing her husband and his work.

Both of the main characters are fun and really seem to evoke their real-life actors. Alejandro's endearing awkwardness appears modeled off of Torres's own sense of humor and bright-eyed eagerness that was on display in our conversation; Elizabeth's idiosyncrasies mirror much of what has been said about actress Tilda Swinton. Although Swinton seems obviously much nicer in real life, something about Elizabeth's constant movement — with iPhone flashlight permanently on, a dewy and watered-down iced coffee always in hand, chargers and wires decking her car and purse and apartment — seems drawn from Swinton's own life and choice of roles. In response to a question I asked about how Swinton co-created her character, Torres cited the "physicality" that Swinton brings, unlike any other actor that helped create Elizabeth and "beautifully, beautifully step into the part."

Torres and Swinton also have great scripts to work with thanks to the screenplay written by the former; the dialogue throughout the film is fantastic, also giving equally creative and entertaining roles to Past Lives' Greta Lee as a wronged Brooklyn mom and Ramy's Laith Nakli as a deadpan but warm immigrant officer. Even smaller roles are hilarious, including a Bank of America teller played by Torres' personal friend River Ramirez. (A notably weak cast member is RZA, whose frozen husband is neither funny nor sympathetic in flashbacks and who has negative chemistry with Swinton.)

While dialogue is a clear strength of Torres', the actual arc of the script — where the dialogue takes us — is the opposite. Juggling a lot of different concepts, including the purpose of art, the challenges of being an immigrant in the US, the role of mortality, the search for personal meaning, and the way things (toys, portraits, cities, capitalism) are designed, Torres is unable to drive a point home on any specific one. Rather than offering a clear perspective, this mostly leaves the audience to muse the questions themselves after the runtime ends. While the plot ends formally for Alejandro and Elizabeth, closing the door on their journeys, we don't receive a satisfying reflection on these important themes. Some script conceits are particularly unhelpful in this regard, such as the omniscient narrator who, aside from her gender, is almost identical in tone and purpose to the narrator of The Stanley Parable, the award-winning meta video game from 2013. The tongue-in-cheek all-knowing humor was funny a decade ago and useful in an interactive game setting, but now feels stale and doesn't offer us specific enough opinions on what's going on on-screen. 

Script aside, and returning once again to the "magical realism" components of Problemista, Torres' imagination is vivid and exciting as it shows up in set design and production. Representing the awful anxiety of the visa search is a huge, literal hall of hourglasses with immigrants' names, the grains of sand in each counting down until deportation. Likewise, deportation is shown as literally disappearing from an office or street, once held papers fluttering to the ground. Symbolizing the morass of office systems — particularly in English when that can be hard for immigrants to understand — is the use of Wingdings (❑︎◆︎♓︎♍︎🙵♌︎❒︎) as the label font for filing cabinets. We're shown not to judge books by their cover through multiple instances of two-dimensional matte painting backdrops standing in for the "real thing," such as in an infinite coat-check painted in oils.
Torres not only has a great career ahead of him, but he also seems like a genuine soul excited to go deeper into film. Approaching a more focused project than Problemista next could help his dialogue shine and tackle themes more robustly.