Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Problemista’ is Messy with Promise

Director: Julio Torres
Writer: Julio Torres
Stars: Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA

Synopsis: Alejandro is an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador struggling to bring his unusual ideas to life in NY. As time runs out on his work visa, a job assisting an erratic art-world outcast becomes his only hope to stay in the country.

Problemista has the My Favorite Shapes comedian-turned-filmmaker Julio Torres venturing into his mind via a whimsical tale of modern-day immigrant life and the fractured art industry. However, it ends up as a messy and disorganized feature with a great scene-stealing performance by the effortlessly captivating Tilda Swinton. 

A24 has been known for giving aspiring filmmakers the freedom to make their debuts so that their voice is smeared across the entire project. That’s one of the things I admire about the independent production company. They roll their dice for a chance at hitting gold with a unique and transcending voice. Lately, they have helped lift the careers of Robert Eggers, Rose Glass, and Ari Aster, amongst other directors, with their respective debuts. The latest person they are helping to express themselves cinematically is comedian Julio Torres, known for his hit special My Favorite Shapes. A24 has teamed up with him to present his debut feature film, Problemista. While it is undoubtedly distinctive and showcases the comedian’s talent as a director stylistic-wise, in which you see how his stand-ups have inspired his vision, the film itself is quite messy and muddled – ending a mostly unfunny and plodding feature.

Julio Torres plays Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador living in New York on a temporary visa. The film’s narrator (Isabella Rossellini) tells us he has always been a dreamer; his mother always encouraged him to explore his creative side. His aspirations lead him to work for Hasbro making unique gifts for kids. He doesn’t want to craft toys that aren’t primarily focused on fun, only those that make children learn something. The reason why Alejandro migrated to the United States is because the toy company’s work application only allows them within the country. As he awaits an answer to his application, he has been making models of his potential future toys and working for a cryogenics company named FreezeCorp. This business sells people the promise of putting them in a cryogenic sleep until they can be awakened later on in the future. 

The problem is that he just got fired from his job because of an accident. This dilemma changes his life for the worse, as he needs another employer to sponsor him so that Alejandro can pay the costs to extend his visa. At last, Alejandro arrives at the hands of an insufferable and eccentric art critic named Elizabeth, who is brought to life by the saving grace of Problemista, the always magnificent Tilda Swinton – she never misses a single beat when it comes to playing anomalous characters. Elizabeth has spent most of her recent time archiving the work of her late husband, Bobby (RZA), who decided to freeze himself after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Bobby left her with an array of egg paintings, which she doesn’t seem to understand. 

In order to try and keep that issue out of her hands, she makes Alejandro a promise: if he helps her secure a private show for those paintings, Elizabeth will sponsor him. You begin to see the whimsy of Julio Torres’ vision right from the get-go, for better or worse. This tendency helps him curate an array of scenarios in which he can innovatively explore his (and his character’s) anxieties. Torres seeks inspiration from the work of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, albeit without the wit and sharpness that comes with the storytelling of these filmmakers. From Alejandro’s glimpses of his fairy-tale-like childhood to the personification of his frustration through detailed, overly capricious set-pieces, these scenes sum up the creativity simmering in his mind, both as a comedian and a filmmaker. 

The eccentricity emerging from each plot thread feels reminiscent of what people love about his stand-up work. Although I’m not a fan of his comedy, I admire how he intertwined his passion with a new art form he’s still trying to figure out. Unfortunately, this array of circumstances that Torres puts his characters in arrives as a messy nuisance that plagues the entire picture for several reasons. First and foremost, the human elements scattered across the film – the main character’s aspirations, backstory, love interests, and future – aren’t explored to their fullest degree in exchange for these whimsical and weird dream-like scenes. You never feel that working at Hasbro is one of Alejandro’s main priorities. And putting a rival/roommate alongside him doesn’t do it any favors since he doesn’t do anything with these plot threads or ideas. 

The only time you get an emotional payout is when Problemista begins to speak about the modern-day life of immigrants. That’s when the film becomes something rather touching and fulfilling. However, the rest seems tied up in frivolous attire that separates the viewer from the director’s vision and story. The image of people disappearing after their visas are not extended is haunting. This short scene is supposed to elicit an impact on the viewer. Yet, because it is submerged in a movie that wants to dedicate time to anything but plot development, you never get that emotional attachment to what’s happening. Torres’ ideas are scattered and disorganized; the main issue is that Problemista wants to bite more than it can chew – failing to manage style and substance with the message he wants to present in his debut. 

The second reason the film falls flat is that its jokes aren’t funny. Some of the best segments rely on Swinton’s Elizabeth, who amazingly chews the scenery and is, by far, the best thing in the film. She’s described as a fire-breathing dragon, and Swinton literally takes that description into consideration for her performance. These scenes are pretty funny, not because of the screenplay but because of her line delivery and attitude. Yet, it comes as a double-edged sword because you see that Problemista is becoming a one-trick pony. 

Whenever the movie feels like it is falling apart, it gives you another one of those scenes where Swinton shines. But the audience can’t be amused by such a joke if it’s the only one being used. All of my issues aside, Julio Torres has some talent behind the camera. However, he needs to be able to trim the fat out of his screenplays and focus on one specific side of his ideas and concepts. There’s so much going on in Problemista, and nothing actually feels satisfactory in the end. 

Grade: C-

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