PROBLEMISTA – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



By  | 

In 2024, could there be sure a thing as a “hip film studio” that would attract both filmmakers and adventurous filmgoers despite the subject matter or “creatives” (actors, directors, etc.)? From the intense internet “buzz” the answer is a big yes. A century ago it was those Warner Brothers with their urban crime thrillers (before expanding into swashbucklers and tearjerkers). And there are those studios that specialize in a genre as Blumhouse does with horror and the Marvel Studios with their comics properties. Perhaps the last time a studio inspired nearly blind loyalty may have been in the early 90s with Miramax, which introduced us to, among many, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino before one of the founders started the spark that became “Me Too”. Today it is A24, which grabbed the top six Oscars a year ago. Last week saw the release of LOVE LIES BLEEDING. From that quirky crime noir/love story we get this weekend’s equally quirky comic nightmare/fantasy, PROBLEMISTA.

This story, as told by narrator Isabella Rossellini, begins in the wild paradise of El Salvador where an artist named Dolores (Catalina Saavedra) builds elaborate art installations in the jungle inspired by her six-year-old son Alejandro. Over a decade and a half later, he (Julio Torres) moves to NYC to pursue his dream of designing and creating toys for the Hasbro Company (a big rival to Barbie’s Mattel). He rents a room in a run-down apartment with some other artists as he collects a mound of rejection letters from the company. Luckily Mother Dolores encourages him over the phone, but he’s got to keep and hold a steady job or he’ll be deported. Alejandro lands a gig at a cryogenics facility, making sure that the icy chambers are never unplugged. Of course, he knocks the cord out for a few seconds, which alerts his boss who promptly fires him. Luckily he then encounters Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the angry wife of the affected client, a “fringe” painter named Bobby (RZA) , who hires him as a personal assistant/gallery scout (to set up a venue to sell these odd portraits of eggs). Alejandro endures her manic mood swings and verbal abuse to get her to write and sign a proof of employment to satisfy the local immigration services office. And he needs the money, which is very slow in arriving. He then turns to many desperate “side hustles” (subletting his room, forcing himself to sleep on the couch in the living room/art studio), eventually answering the “siren call” of “Craigslist”, all in order to make the proper contact who will open up the golden door to toy biz superstardom.

As Alejandro, Torres has almost perfected a flat deadpan delivery that helps to amplify the often absurd situations that almost squash his creative spirit. And yet there’s a bit of the con artist inside him as he tries to bluff his way into the “fancy-schmancy” art circles of the Big Apple. We also get a bit of his tender naive spirit, especially in those hasty (running out of minutes) calls to his “Madre”. Torres is often the “straight man” to the film’s real “scene stealer” Swinton as the loopy “force of nature”, the scatter-brained (her hubby dubbed her the “Hydra”) Elizabeth. She’s almost a second mother figure to Alejandro, though she’s almost impossible to read or predict. But Swinton is also “fierce” as Elizabeth protects the legacy of her beloved Bobby while having an obsessive devotion to the prickly software of “File Maker Pro”. This is another inspired eccentric in Swinton’s ever-expanding resume of roles. In the flashbacks, RZA is the coolest of all creators as the “egg-cellent” Bobby. Saavedra is a warm and supportive mama while Larry Owens is the slithering and seductive embodiment of the opportunity beacon of Craigslist. And there’s a terrific cameo by an A24 actress who was superb in last year’s PAST LIVES, the gifted Greta Lee.

I didn’t mention that Torres is also the writer and director (his first feature) of the film. His tenure on Saturday Night Live and other “sketch shows” comes through in several very clever sequences, from the demonstrations of his weird toy prototypes to a sword & sorcery riff when the “hydra” encounters a bank officer slavishly defending an outrageous overdraft policy (look for an update on it at the end of the credits list). Plus Torres has an eye for excellent locations that showcase some striking visuals, particularly as a transport car that hovers over the skyscrapers. And there are some clever slapstick antics as Alejandro evokes the classic silent clowns (he just needed Buster’s flat hat) as he lugs Bobby’s big paintings all over the town and up countless flights of stairs. Alas, the film doesn’t quite equal the “sum of its parts” as the constant “panic vibe” becomes exhausting as the tale suddenly takes a few very dark and dangerous turns (a stint as a “private housecleaner” is much too creepy). Luckily a charming and witty “flash forward’ ends it all on somewhat of a “high note”, but we’re still left with the feeling that the film might have worked better as a series of SNL sketches or even a streaming one-hour comedy showcase. Still, it will be interesting to see where the career of Torres progresses from the uneven PROBLEMISTA.

2.5 Out of 4

PROBLEMISTA is now playing in select theatres

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.