‘Problemista’ is an inventive, eccentric comedy, but a couple of problems trip it up

“Problemista” (2024) – Alejandro (Julio Torres) has a problem. 

The 20-something, wide-eyed New York City upstart – with a slight frame and a mop-top haircut with a sometimes-noticeable cow lick – just lost his job at FreezeCorp, a cryogenic stasis outfit that dresses its clients in a tube to sleep for – perhaps – hundreds of years. 

Alejandro didn’t calculate differential equations to pinpoint the math behind these science-fiction devices in the here and now.  He handled the Sleeping Beauties’ personal belongings, or for one client, an artist named Bobby (RZA). 

However, Alejandro was awakened with his walking papers after a critical faux pas.

The more significant issue for our young hero is that he no longer has an employer to sponsor his work visa, and this El Salvador resident will be forced to leave the U.S. if he doesn’t find another stat!

As “luck” would have it, he finds a new position with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) as her assistant, but she may be the most neurotic boss in recent movie history. 

Elizabeth’s disheveled appearance of vintage, layered textiles, gnarled locks of pink with blondish roots peaking from the top of her head, and Raggedy Ann rouge on her cheeks indicate that emotional stability isn’t her strong suit.  The woman probably has an undiagnosed case of borderline personality disorder, while she barks confusing orders, bathes in inefficiency, and regularly responds with “Don’t scream at me,” while Alejandro offers polite, soft-spoken suggestions to course correct. 

If there’s a silver lining, our pink-headed friend ultimately means well, but her methods march in madness.  The infamous “Office Space” (1999) boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), may have his staff work on the weekends, but at least they’ll be filling out the TPS reports in peace. 

Still, Alejandro needs this job while he waits for Elizabeth to officially sign the paperwork to sponsor him and satisfy the whole work visa thing. 

This is the premise for “Problemista”; the comedy is Torres’ first feature-film directorial effort.  The 37-year-old also wrote the film as well.

Although the premise is straightforward, stylistically, the film is wildly eccentric, like a cross between “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022).

Frequently, the audience must jump between two twisted worlds: modern-day New York City and the maze inside Alejandro’s head.  Torres pleads his case that The Big Apple (or the United States, in general) in 2023 is a miserable place and time for the immigrant experience or for anyone simply trying to establish secure roots in society. 

Indeed, Millennials have suffered through 9/11, the housing crash, insane tuition hikes, crowded job markets, and the housing boom that makes mortgages out of reach. 

Alejandro is simply attempting to find a job and stay in the country while multitasking to realize his dream position as a toy maker at Hasbro.  Still, the everything-seems-out-of-reach Millennial feeling rings true here.

Anyway, what is present in the real world? 

Clutter, individual pieces of trash, or piles of Hefty garbage bags seem ever-present in nearly every shot of the city, like a dystopian society where littering is an Olympic sport, and garbage men have been on strike for months. 

Alejandro’s reality isn’t pleasant.  Living with seemingly five roommates in a cramped apartment, desperately trying to keep his bank account above $0, and following Elizabeth’s twisty directions – where taking one step forward and three steps back is a productive day – can be exhausting. 

It’s also exhausting for the audience. 

Swinton’s Elizabeth is a tremendous force of confusion and dismay, like accidentally sending a fork down a garbage disposal while Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” blasts on 11, and the dog barks at the mailman. 

Which immediate clatter do you address first? 

Calgon, take me away!

Well, cheers to Tilda because she delivers a searing, purposely over-the-top performance.  Elizabeth’s machine-gun banter, which tends to shoot down everybody within eyeshot throughout the movie, is impressive.  However, her nails-on-a-chalkboard/fork-swirling-in-a-garbage-disposal act is a chore to digest after the first act.  Since Elizabeth and Alejandro are the two principal players onscreen, there are few chances for refuge.  

(Think of “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006).  Even though Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is an incredibly difficult boss to Andy (Anne Hathaway), audiences – including this critic – relish their moments of tense chemistry, but I often winced when Elizabeth and Alejandro were present in the same room.)

When the two aren’t combatting over FileMaker Pro or scouting out an art gallery to showcase 13 paintings of eggs, Alejandro struggles to find a job by talking to an oddball, unfunny genie encased in wires on the Internet.  He also anxiously crawls through an endless dollhouse designed by Steven Hawking on LSD or argues with a Bank of America employee while trapped in a constricting rock formation. 

No question, Torres has a wonderous imagination.  He seems to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen, including a slinky that doesn’t slink down a flight of stairs and Elizabeth dressing up in a dragon-like costume from the old Sid and Marty Krofft days. 

“Problemista” doesn’t have a creative idea problem in the slightest, and Swinton and Torres (with his Justin Long-like look and tone from “Dodgeball: True Underdog Story” (2004)) offer several amusing moments over 104 minutes.  Rooting for Alejandro is extremely easy, and his situation appears impossible.  These aspects are immensely desirable when building a screenplay, but Alejandro and Elizabeth’s working relationship dominates the film, and this critic needed more breaks from their caustic dynamic.  Still, his flaky roommates and her new smug intern weren’t enough.  Neither are the frequent jumps into kooky weirdness, and there just isn’t enough comedy or normalcy to balance out the rough edges.

Still, “Problemista” follows through – with its eccentric, imaginative nature – to the end, and Isabella Rossellini wonderfully narrates the story for our lead.  How about that?  Hey, Torres has a bright future as a director.  He has a lot to say.  Just maybe, in this case, less innovation is more. That’s a relatively easy problem to fix.

Directed and written by:  Julio Torres

Starring:  Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, and Isabella Rossellini

Runtime:  104 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: A24

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