Problemista Review

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Problemista is among the year’s most playful films. It’s also one of the most stressful. You wouldn’t think these two would go hand in hand. For any artist who’s tried to make it in New York, though, it’s right on the money. One half of your brain is constantly creating, distracting you from your day job. The other is contemplating how you’re going to pay rent, if you can afford to eat lunch, and if your bank account can go below zero dollars. Protagonist Alejandro (Julio Torres) faces the added hurdle of being deported unless he finds employment. Some may see Alejandro as a fish out of water, but he’s probably the closest thing this movie has to a normal character.

Reserved and levelheaded Alejandro might be, although his mind overflows with creativity. Immigrating from El Salvador, Alejandro dreams of becoming a toy designer at Hasbro. Alejandro’s ideas feel like something out of a Wes Anderson picture. Torres, who also wrote and directed Problemista, paints a colorful, quirky portrait that’s best described as Anderson-esque, right down to the presence of Tilda Swinton. Where Alejandro is the definition of an introvert, Swinton’s Elizabeth is the other extreme. After getting let go from a cryogenic freezing company, Alejandro finds himself working for Elizabeth, whose husband was also given the Austin Powers treatment.

Elizabeth wishes to preserve her husband’s work through an art show, saying that she’ll sponsor Alejandro if it’s a success. To say that Elizabeth is impossible to please would be an understatement. She’s the customer that every waiter dreads serving. Whether you get her order right or wrong, she’s going to throw a fit and no form of reimbursement will be enough. At least the waiter only has to get through a meal with Elizabeth. Alejandro goes to hell and back for Elizabeth all on the promise that she *might* be able to keep him in the country.

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Swinton may be the only actress who can push Elizabeth to the edge of sanity without going too over the top. Even more impressive, Swinton makes Elizabeth just likable enough. We wouldn’t want to be on the other end of a phone call with her, but we’ll gladly watch her bark orders at others for 98 minutes. When Alejandro isn’t literally combatting Elizabeth in a dragon’s den, he’s accepting the oddest of odd jobs on Craigslist, which is also cleverly visualized. Torres’ background as an SNL writer is on full display, although Problemista doesn’t play like a sketch stretched to feature length thanks to the layered central relationship.

A more conventional film would see Alejandro turn Elizabeth into a humbler human. It’s Alejandro who grows through his relationship with Elizabeth, however. While Elizabeth is by no means a role model, her aggression rubs off on Alejandro in a positive way. In small doses, aggression can not only be a helpful survival tool, but a necessary one, especially in a city like New York. Elizabeth shows marginal maturity as well, although she’s too far gone to ever truly change. Alejandro has the potential to become an emotionally balanced person, however. That said, the film could’ve done without an epilogue that reveals more than it needs to and takes a step too far into surrealism. Between the two lead performances, Torres’ witty script, and narration from the always-welcome Isabella Rossellini, though, the film has far more pros than problems.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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