A colorful explosion of dark comedy perfection, A24 gem Problemista is 2023’s queer masterpiece. Written, directed, produced by, and starring SNL wunderkind Julio Torres, Problemista isn’t afraid to ask the important questions. What’s with those pesky bank overdraft fees? Why do expensive restaurants always have walnuts in their salads? Most importantly: why is the process for obtaining a work visa for an immigrant so needlessly complicated? Torres aims to answer all of these questions and more. With the best performance of Tilda Swinton’s storied career fitting snugly into this bizarro patchwork puzzle, Problemista designs a perfect instant-classic toy you will want to play with over and over again.
Unfolding as if from some warped fairy tale, a hilarious and highly-informed Narrator (Isabella Rossellini) takes us on a journey through the life of eccentric immigrant Alejandro (Torres). In every stage of the character, he can be seen sporting a comical cowlick and a wide-eyed hopefulness. From an early age, Alejandro was fully supported by his loving mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), an inventive, outside-the-box thinker. Perhaps it was the machinations of Dolores that made Alejandro so obsessed with inventing toy ideas in pursuit of his dream job at Hasbro. As the film begins, Alejandro completes his Talent Incubator Program application in the hopes of being chosen. Hasbro opts not to choose Alejandro or his quirky toy ideas. Problemista spills over with these clever concepts, including a Barbie whose fingers are crossed behind her back to hide a secret, career-oriented Cabbage Patch Kids, and a snake in a can that comes with an apology.
To keep himself afloat and maintain a work visa, Alejandro takes a job at FreezeCore. The company cryogenically freezes their clients, and keeps them stored for safekeeping whilst FreezeCore researches how to actually bring them back to life. I would not at all be surprised to hear about the rich and famous pursuing this in the real world as a means to help preserve their legacy, despite all the unknowns. For Alejandro, he becomes the archivist assigned to passionate artist Bobby (RZA). Working for FreezeCore is easier said than done, especially when distracted. Alejandro accidentally trips over a blue cable for the power backup that can allegedly never be disconnected, and FreezeCore promptly kicks him to the curb. He has suddenly hit a major snafu. If Alejandro does not come up with a way to obtain a work visa within a month, he will vanish back to his home country like so many other immigrants before him.
Torres carefully treads the line between imaginative metaphor and tender emotionality. Hourglass imagery and literal disappearing acts underline the gravity of Alejandro’s situation. His mother, working on a secret project from afar back in El Salvador, is helpless to protect her son on this front despite always being there to hear out his problems. A ticking time bomb hanging overhead, Alejandro works tirelessly alongside Elizabeth to track down her frozen husband’s entire art collection of egg paintings in the hopes that they can open a solo exhibition for the works.
Leave it to fate to intervene: Bobby’s grieving widow, Elizabeth (Swinton), an art critic and overseer of Bobby’s legacy, was busy flipping out over FreezeCore’s insane premium package pricing when she unexpectedly befriends Alejandro. This was the perfect role for Swinton. Shaggy red hair and dramatic mismatched outfits in every scene make Elizabeth a character one will never want to abandon. Her dialect borders on overbearing Karen, yet Elizabeth remains so endearing and sincere throughout. She offers to take Alejandro on as a freelance worker to help get her affairs in order. Elizabeth has an obsession with “the Cadillac” of software, FileMaker Pro, yet blatantly neglects the upkeep of one of her many homes. Forks in the wall and heels wrapped in wire adorn her apartment. Torres uses closeups to emphasize the constant garbage littered everywhere, including among the scummy streets of New York City where Problemista was also filmed.
Alejandro must embrace an Ursula-like Craigslist monster (Larry Owens), taking on random odd jobs aplenty, in order to make money in the interim awaiting a work visa from Elizabeth. Each task finds Alejandro in a tug-of-war with his own bank account. Eventually, he even has to sublet his own room and sleep on the couch of his roommate, Spray (Spike Einbinder). Torres visualizes the immigrant experience by way of a neverending maze. The complicated nature of obtaining a work visa is a tragic reality that appears to all but implore illegal activity just to make ends meat.
Problemista is a lush visual overload, portraying magical realism and fantastical asides to stand in for real-life problems. Torres does not allow Alejandro to be defined solely by his queerness—instead, being gay is just one aspect of his personality. Quirky and perfect but never pretentious, the film hits the rare target of a movie that feels so deeply personal yet so hysterically over the top at the same time. How do we navigate the chaos in our lives without becoming overwhelmed by it? Problemista seems to argue that managing and embracing this chaos may be the only way forward. A future cult classic could be in the cards. A24 has put out some absolutely incredible films in the last few years, and Problemista has to be one of my absolute favorites.
Problemista screened at NewFest Pride, and jumps from Craigslist onto the big screen on Friday, August 4th.