Julio Torres already proved to Hollywood he possesses a unique voice. He consistently showed off his vision and clever insights as writer on SNL and co-creator of Los Espookys. Now, A24 provided Torres an opportunity to direct his first feature. Problemista instantly connects, becoming one of the most confident debuts of the year. The very funny and outlandish film serves as an exciting moment for the comedian while also showcasing one of the best performances of Tilda Swinton‘s career.
Alejandro (Torres) dreams of designing toys for Hasbro. However, as an immigrant, this always seems out of reach. In order to apply for a job with Hasbro, he moves to America. Once there, he takes care of the cryogenically frozen body of Bobby, a misunderstood artist (RZA). Bobby’s wife, Elizabeth (Swinton), consistently complains about technological mishaps and the way people complete their work. After meeting Alejandro, she offers to sponsor him for his visa if she can put on a show of Bobby’s artwork.
Torres steps into the director’s chair with the confidence to mix styles of other directors into his own unique blend. There’s a lot of great work that he seems to be pulling from, yet this is a world unto itself. While artisans like Wes Anderson come to mind, the literary structure of the story helps Problemista unfold like a new-age fairy tale. Adding Isabelle Rossellini as the omniscient narrator never hurts.
The power of Alejandro’s story comes in the discovery of self and the understanding that success does not always come in forward progression. Along the road of life, we are distracted and pushed onto new paths. The course of our life may change time and time again, but it’s how we adapt to the opportunities that we can find a way to thrive.
The anti-capitalist messages of Problemista also ring throughout the story. Across life, those with money find an easier path forward, while those who need and want help the most often face adversity. Placing an immigrant story in the world of high art, where the richest accidentally get grants to supplement income, becomes an extremely effective tool. Torres’ humor walks a fine line between general comedy and biting satire. What makes Problemista so good is that it can effectively function in both ways.
In addition to Torres’ hyper-specific turn, which generates laughs for the weirdest things, Swinton brings her A-game. It will be hard to find a more specific and humorous turn by an actress this year. Every one of us has an Elizabeth in our lives, and Swinton fully commits to every toxic trait. Yet, framing the story through a point-of-view that questions our rush to judgment is an extremely empathetic move by Torres. Even in our most frustrating moments, everyone has worth and purpose. Both Swinton’s performance and Torres’ direction make sure the viewer questions their own presumptions.
Torres delivers an incredible vision for a feature debut. His writing is whip-smart, and his style is fully formed. We are unlikely to see a more complete debut this year. An incredibly fun and silly experience, Problemista is one of the most empathetic films of the year. It’s also a genuine crowdpleaser with incredibly insightful political dialogue. We need more Problemistas in 2023.