Review: ‘Problemista’ is whimsical and truly awesome

Review: ‘Problemista’ is whimsical and truly awesome

By Mark Kennedy | Associated Press

The hero of “Problemista” sees the world differently. He’s an aspiring toy designer named Alejandro who thinks today’s toys are too fun. He proposes a toy truck with a deflating tire to teach kids they’re running out of time.

Alejandro is the creation of Julio Torres, who stars, directs and has written “Problemista,” an off-kilter and very winning movie from a rising artist who thrillingly reflects his own toy maker’s singular, idiosyncratic mind.

“Problemista” is not like a Wes Anderson-type hyper-whimsy, but more like the surreal bursting joy of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It even breaks space and time like the latter. It is absolutely captivating.

It tells the story of Alejandro (Torres), an El Salvadoran immigrant desperate to work for Hasbro but needing to extend his New York stay by getting his work visa approved. His artistic mother back home has tried to shield him from life’s harshness, but he’s alone in a hulking, unfriendly city filled with trash. Isabella Rossellini narrates, adding a starry gravitas.

Torres plays the aspiring toymaker as a delicate soul, always trying to be accommodating and a dreamer. He is childlike, with terrible bangs and a tuft of hair jumping out like an exclamation mark, always with a backpack, and walking in little unsure steps, almost hopping like a small bird, as if he doesn’t want to leave an impression.

A twist of fate gets him into the orbit of Elizabeth, the widow of an artist who has been cryogenically frozen by FreezeCorp. To afford to keep her husband on ice, she must locate and sell his unloved paintings — a 13-painting series of eggs in different places — and she needs the computer and gofer assistance of Alejandro. He sees this as a potential lifeline.

Tilda Swinton — a Wes Anderson favorite — plays the widow as an unhinged, self-involved, rude and frightening force of nature. She thinks people are screaming at her when she’s the one screaming, she can’t turn her iPhone light off, she confronts waiters over tiny things and is banned from Uber. Swinton is in her element here.

These two very opposite souls need each other and not just in a transactional sense. She needs his calmness and vision, and he needs her forthrightness. “When they tell you you can only turn left or right, you let them know you’re going up. Always send the food back. Stand up for yourself,” she tells him.

Torres displays a Kafkaesque bent as he illustrates the byzantine hurdles of red tape that immigrants face, with Alejandro negotiating a fantasy office maze, like a human rat opening vents to climb into sterile offices. In one scene, an immigrant who is told she must leave the country suddenly disappears — poof!

The filmmaker also skewers the Catch-22 of another overly bureaucratic institution — banks. “I know that there’s a still person in there and I know that she can hear me,” he pleads to a bank representative about a nonsense overdraft fee. Both institutions feast on people who have no margin of error.

Torres is a comedian and TV writer, who worked at “Saturday Night Live” — his skit for Ryan Gosling about how “Avatar” weirdly used the Papyrus font is a new classic. He also was the creator of the oddball HBO sitcom “Los Espookys.” He revels in the surreal and this movie proves he’s one of the best out there.

If the hysterical weirdness about fonts is any indication, viewers won’t be surprised that there are bizarre sequences about FileMaker Pro, misbehaving iPads, dropdown menus and Ikea’s Billy bookcases. Craigslist is portrayed by a sinister man (Larry Owens) crowded by junk, people prove odd and kinky and a tense phone call is depicted as a knight in armor battling a dragon. Customer service calls descend into horror movie chanting and madness.

There is so much rich material in the absurdity: how immigrants and artists crave to be seen, how modern systems eat up people, how we try to cheat death and how technology doesn’t live up to its promise. The movie even speeds more than 300 years into the future.

In that cool future, we’re pretty certain they’ll be talking about the big directorial debut of a talented filmmaker. Torres is just starting to toy with us.


3 1/2 stars out of 4

Rating: R (for sexual content and some language)

Running time: 104 minutes