'Problemista' review: This funky New York fairytale is an instant comedy classic

New York City exists beyond the bound of its literal geographical limits and in the imagination of movie lovers worldwide, thanks to its iconic depictions in the films of Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and now Julio Torres. Co-creator and co-star of the celebrated comedy series Los Espookys, the Salvadoran talent makes his directorial debut with Problemista, a New York City tale about immigration, privilege, misfits, and the weird bonds that make all the difference. 

After a release delayed due to the SAG/AFTRA strike, Problemista is finally coming to theaters, trailing critical praise and boasting a cast that — on its own — is worth the price of admission: Tilda Swinton, Isabella Rossellini, Past Lives‘ Greta Lee, A League of Their Own‘s Kelly McCormack, HacksMeg Stalter, Abbott Elementary‘s Larry Owens, and Wu-Tang Clan‘s RZA. Together, this impeccable ensemble brings to life Torres’s unique yet familiar vision of New York City as a wonderland of possibility and trash. 

What’s Problemista about? 

RZA and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista."

Credit: A24

Isabella Rossellini’s dreamy voice narrates in a way that might feel reminiscent of Wes Anderson, painting Problemista as a fantastical bedtime story that begins in a far-off land, lush with trees and imagination. Torres stars as Alejandro, a Salvadoran dreamer who aspires to be a toymaker in America. His clever concepts have a queer sensibility with a whiff of existential dread, like a Barbie doll with her fingers crossed behind her back or a slinky that refuses to go down the stairs. 


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However, the immigration process is a labyrinthine nightmare, full of loopholes, pitfalls, and ticking clocks. Torres illustrates these grim realities with surreal imagery, like a series of infinitely repeating, interconnected offices that never allow him an escape, hourglasses with sand racing out as the time to secure a visa sponsor runs out, and distraught immigrants who vanish like ghosts in the face of inert social workers. 

Alejandro’s plight is that he’s trying to secure a job at a major toy brand. When his survival gig at a sketchy cryogenics lab goes cold, he’s desperate to find a sponsor so he won’t be deported. Enter Elizabeth (Swinton), the titular drama queen who will make her problem yours, all the while accusing you of screaming at her

Defending her cryogenically frozen artist husband (RZA, who appears in flashbacks), feared art critic Elizabeth stomps into the lab and Alejandro’s life like a dragon. She’s cloaked in shiny leathers, jagged knits, and other costuming choices that signal she’s known privilege and power; she is not to be fucked with. Her long, violently dyed red hair with encroaching gray roots speaks of her demand to be seen despite a struggle to keep up appearances. Her face is streaked with clumsy make-up and an alarmingly intense expression. Naturally, Alejandro is entranced. If she’ll employ him as her assistant, she might not only be his way out of this downward spiral to deportation — she could also be an inspiration. 

Tilda Swinton and Julio Torres are a glorious comedy duo. 

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista."

Credit: A24

It’s easy to imagine an interpretation of Elizabeth where she’s an aggravating Karen, the sort who is publicly scolded for haughty behavior to store clerks (not to be confused with the sort of Karen who dangerously promotes anti-Black racism, to be clear). However, Swinton embodies Elizabeth with ardent humor, aware that this woman is complex but also ridiculous. Swinton — like Gene Wilder — commits to the comedy by taking her character ruthlessly seriously, whether Elizabeth is snarling at a waiter over walnuts or preaching about the virtues of FileMaker Pro. So, she and Torres give birth to the kind of “don’t fuck with me fellas” diva revered by queer audiences, who may connect to her rage and crave her reckless rebellion. 

When Elizabeth takes Alejandro under her wing, there’s a heady exhilaration in watching their dynamic. He is enchanted yet wary of her, as she is made up of fabulous fashion and mercurial moods. But through flashbacks, Rossellini’s gentle voiceover, and Alejandro’s journey, it becomes clear that these two misfits have a lot in common: big dreams, an unflappable will, and humble origins. Elizabeth’s background is implied, but her Irish accent and ferocity speak of a woman who spent her youth scraping by in a New York that tried to shake her off like a tick. To that, Alejandro can relate, as he squabbles with roommates, begs mercy from Bank of America, and searches for under-the-table work on Craigslist, presented here as a sentient storm of whispers and oddball offers. (Owens is absolutely inspired in the role of this messy and marvelous website). 

Where Swinton is a dedicated dragon, Torres plays Alejandro with a superbly silly simplicity. He speaks almost in a monotone; think a less affected Fred Armisen. But within this, like in Wes Anderson movies, a great deal of poignancy is carried. A cowlick eternally flopping about his scalp, an unstoppable shuffle-step that reveals his meekness before he even speaks, and when he does, it’s almost a hush — Alejandro is the kind of industrious, kind-hearted newbie that New York City will chew up and spit out given half a chance. Torres recognizes this in his depictions of the U.S. Immigration’s comically cruel bureaucracy, as well as in the contrast between Alejandro and the hardened, very New York Elizabeth. But most importantly, the production design illustrates how this is not only a land of opportunity but also of wasted possibilities.

Problemista makes its trash iconic. 

From the moment I saw the trash piles in Problemista, I understood Torres’s New York. Like Scorsese’s of the ’70s, it’s a metropolis covered in mountains of trash, making the sidewalks an obstacle course for humans and an all-you-can-eat buffet for rats. However, in Problemista, these piles of garbage are peppered with whimsy. Beautiful paintings casually rest amid white trash bags. A glittering hula hoop or a rainbow umbrella, open and reaching high, protrude from another pile. Unspoken but clearly presented is the New York City culture of trash-picking, where the haves will pitch their goods to curb, where the have-nots will gratefully carry it home (probably awkwardly on the subway), literally making another person’s trash their treasure while hoping to the fates they’re not bringing bedbugs into their lives. 

The trash speaks to the surreal reality of Alejandro and Elizabeth’s New York, which is glorious and gross, full of potential for victory and ruin, a dreamer’s home and their greatest nightmare. Within this panoply of paradox, Torres paints the story of two dreamers on either side of the divide of “making it.” In Elizabeth, Alejandro sees a potential future. In him, she sees her scrappy past. Together, this will forge a friendship that is both fucked up and as ferocious as you might expect from a dragon. 

In the end, Problemista isn’t just wildly imaginative, ruthlessly clever, and radically whimsical. It’s also a deeply funny, feel-good movie that doesn’t pull punches on its political or social satire. In short, it’s one hell of a directorial debut and one of the best films of 2024. 

Problemista opens in theaters in limited release March 1, then expands nationwide March 22.

By 111 Tech

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