FILM REVIEW: Problemista (2024) is a stylish and surreal view at navigating the pitfalls of immigrant life in America

Julio Torres’ feature film debut is a wonderfully surreal and affecting comedy about navigating towards your authentic self as a working immigrant.

One of the shining lights for this writer during the pandemic was the discovery of the sitcom “Los Espookys” on HBO Max. It was a surreal story of a group of amateur haunters from across the border and their adventures staging alien invasions, haunted houses and attacks from sea creatures while navigating chocolate candy fortunes, marriages to would-be princes and adventures in valet parking. The architect of this show was a young SNL writer named Julio Torres, who penned some of SNL’s most memorable and bizarre sketches including Papyrus, where Ryan Goslong is driven to madness by James Cameron’s use of stock font as the logo for his Avatar franchise.

It’s that kind of surreal magical logic that permeates Torres debut as a writer/director in A24’s Problemista, which opens this weekend in select theaters. Torres stars and plays Alejandro, an immigrant from El Salvador in New York looking to make his place designing surreal artistic versions of classic Hasbro toys as part of its talent incubator program. His entry fails to capture him a position at the erstwhile toy maker, so he takes a job working at a cryogenics facility in order to maintain his work visa to chase his dream.

It’s here that Problemista finds its groove in tackling the issues an immigrant like Alejandro has to navigate to maintain residency when he is fired by the cryogenics company. Alejandro has only a limited time to negotiate a new sponsor for his work visa and he thinks he has found an option in working for Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the wife of one of the cryogenics’ companies clients. Elizabeth ois deeply devoted to the work of her husband Bobby (RZA from the Wu Tang Clan) and aspires to put together a database and show of her husband’s paintings of eggs. Alejandro takes the role of her assistant to try and make this happen, as well as his dreams of designing toys in America. However, Elizabeth is deeply eccentric and goes her own unique and eccentric way which makes Alejandro’s efforts to please her difficult and at times Sisyphean. Swinton makes this character feel real through flashbacks that explain her behavior. The rapport between the two is something akin to Harold and Maude, with Elizabeth pointing out to Alejandro he has many opportunities available to him in life if he asserts himself and try to get as much out of it as she can. This rapport between the two is illustrated throughout with Torres’ use of magical realism and his unique brand of comedy that reflects his comedy special on HBO as well as the same surreal cutaways seen in Los Espookys. The film also benefits from performances by actors like Greta Lee and Isabella Rossellini is small but pivotal roles.

If elements of absurdist comedy as seen on Adult Swim are your jam and you enjoy unique, quirky worldviews in film, check out Problemista. While its surreal moments may take some viewers out of the film, they’re not so dissimilar from those seen recently in Dream Scenario or Beau is Afraid with a stronger third act than both those films. Problemista opens March 15th.