de facto film reviews 2 stars

The endlessly screwed-up immigration and economic exploitation that make the American immigration experience challenging are on full display in Problemista. Writer-director and co-star Julio Torres creates a messy, uneven piece of work, capturing the struggling sense of life of an immigrant in New York City who struggles to get hired at Hasbro Toys. Once his work visa expires, he ends up getting a job as an assistant for a former art critic, which can move him closer to staying in America to pursue his dreams of being a toy designer. Torres strives heavily to capture the deadpan hilarity, pathos, and touches of surrealism that echo the work of Michel Gondry, but this personal and equally uneven vision fails to stay tonally and visually consistent with its quirky tone and sporadic visual style. While Tilda Swinton turns in a monstrously amusing performance as a former art critic and now outcast, Problemista certainly would have worked better had Torres brought more restraint into his style and creative decisions that end up becoming eye-rolling.

Torres certainly brings some emotional depth and a personal vision that match his talents. His feature film debut sadly suffers from feeling indulgent, and his style and storytelling end up feeling maladroit. Even Isabella Rossellini’s voice-over narration makes it feel at first like a fairy tale, but the voice-over gets abandoned and isn’t fully utilized. The film opens with her narration describing the life of Alejandro Torres, who moved from El Salvador to New York City to become a toy designer, but his ideas aren’t based on original ideas but just uninspired ones that add peculiarities to existing chains of toys. For instance, Alejandro thinks of a Barbie with her fingers crossed behind her back or Cabbage Patch Dolls with smart phones. We see Alejandro, who goes by Ale for short, sending off his video resume to Hasbro with his ideas, and while he’s very likeable, he’s also very passive and oblivious to how cutthroat the world can be.


Courtesy A24 Films

Once he gets a generic rejection letter from a no-response email from Hasbro informing him that he didn’t get the position, Ale ends up taking a low-entry job at a bio-tech company called Freeze Corp that puts customers to sleep indefinitely by putting them into a frozen pod where they promise to wake up in the future once science and society are ready for it. Ale ends up getting fired from his job after tripping on the electric plug to one of the pods. He is in dire need of finding another job or getting a sponsor soon as his temporary work visa is set to expire.

Ale ends up encountering Tilda Swinton’s Elizabeth, who is very erratic and unpleasant. She’s certainly demanding like a “Karen,” but without the racism, Elizbeth is still an insufferable person who is very formidable and will never cave in until her demands are met. The two encounter each other at the offices of Freeze Corp, and it’s revealed that Elizabeth’s husband, Bobby (RZA), seen through flashbacks, is one of the clients of Freeze Corp, who agreed to freeze his body once he was diagnosed with cancer.

To honor his artistic legacy, Elizabeth is determined to hold an exhibition of Bobby’s artwork that consists of his paintings, which are of individual eggs that he painted exactly 13 of. Elizabeth has most of them, but she must track down a few of them, and she ends up hiring Ale to be her personal assistant, with the promise of sponsorship if everything goes well with the planning of the exhibition. The sponsorship comes with challenges and red tape as it must be unpaid according to federal immigration law, and Elizabeth demands that Ale use FileMaker Pro instead of Google Sheets to organize Bobby’s work. When they are out in public, Elizabeth spends her time yelling at waiters, cable car operators, and art gallery owners, and Greta Lee (Past Lives) plays an art collector named Dalia who owns the 13th egg painting, where Dalia ends up feeling the wrath of Elizabeth.

Problemista (2024)

Courtesy A24 Films

Narratively, the film is compelling and amusing. Where the film backfires when Torres wallows in an unnecessary multitude of surrealist fantasy sequences that reflect Ale’s challenges. There are some fantasy sequences of Ale climbing up and down small stairs that lead him to tiny offices that are clearly influenced by Charlie Kaufman. We also have scenes of a deranged genie (Larry Owens) who cruelly pivots Ale into getting terrible jobs off Craigslist of commission jobs and cleaning windows for patron’s sexual arousal. Thematically, Torres explores the bureaucratic cruelties and disarray of our broken immigration system, and you can’t help but feel for his predicament.

The film visually echoes the chaos, but it feels derivative and overdone. They don’t even work as metaphors, as everything is spelled out, and the fantasies would have worked more effectively if the whole world and tone of the film were surrealist, which they’re not. Some of the finest exchanges in the film involve Ale having phone conversations with his mother (Catalina Saavedra—see her in Rotting in the Sun), who still resides in El Salvador, and she gives Ale encouragement to stay hopeful. These scenes become short-lived due to how tonally fractured the film is.

Ultimately, Torres’s personal take on our failed immigration system is tonally fractured, where many merits are short-lived as the surrealism and fantasy scenes gallows with inconstancy. Even when the female characters of Catalina Saavedra, Greta Lee, and Isabella Rosellini’s narration are a near-saving grace, a series of over directed and stylistic choices make the themes feel heavy-handed. While Tilda Swinton has some hilarious moments with her overbearing performance and while her character finds an arc, Torres direction never fully rises Swinton’s performance out of caricature. Even if Torres intentions and plight are sincere, the movie doesn’t quite work. Without some of the film’s strength, we’re left with just another forced and precious, quirky indie.

PROBLEMISTA is now playing in limited theaters