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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Problemista’ review: Craven new world

By Amy Nicholson

Comedian Julio Torres presents himself like an alien from outer space, an unsmiling observer of Earth paraphernalia. Born in El Salvador, but seeming to hail from somewhere between Andy Kaufman’s fictional Caspiar and Mork’s planet Ork, Torres uses his stand-up; his “Saturday Night Live” skits (he wrote for the show from 2016 to 2019); and, now, his eccentric filmmaking debut, “Problemista,” to indulge his fixations, including plastic toys and ostentatious sinks.

Torres can anthropomorphize any object — his 2019 one-man special, “My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres,” explores the psyche of the airplane curtain dividing first class from coach — but he has barely taken interest in humanity. The most telling line in “Shapes,” for which he adorned his body with astral flecks of silver glitter, is when Torres announces he will “abruptly do some impressions at you,” emphasizing his refusal to extend himself toward the other beings in the room.

Yet “Problemista,” which Torres wrote, directed and stars in, reveals a new willingness to tell a relatable story with a riveting sketch of an honest-to-goodness person. The film is a loosely autobiographical recounting of his ordeal to find an employer willing to sponsor his immigration visa (fittingly, he secured one that deems him “an alien of extraordinary ability”), and Torres’ miseries are familiar to anyone who’s been short of cash in a new city: consistent scrimping and soul-sucking hours sifting through fishy online jobs. Craigslist, embodied by Larry Owens, appears as a junkyard necromancer urging gig seekers to click on a posting labeled “cleaning boy kink.”

The need to kowtow seems to have scarred Torres. But the character to watch isn’t his analogue, Alejandro, an aspiring toymaker who tiptoes across the screen as if Torres is wearing a Halloween costume of a shy and ordinary person. (The cowlick is overkill.) Instead, it’s his boss, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art critic who sorta-kinda hires Alejandro to assemble a gallery show of paintings by her cryogenically frozen husband, Bobby (RZA). (Torres himself was an archivist for artist John Heliker and gleefully vents about database software FileMaker Pro.)

Argumentative, venomous and perennially aggrieved, Elizabeth is an embittered New Yorker who spends a quarter of her screen time screaming at tech support over the phone. She’s the kind of malcontent who will, in all sincerity, accuse people of being “in cahoots.” Swinton plays her with her fingernails curled, like a badger looking for a fight. It’s a frightful and gargantuan performance that should come with a trigger warning. I’ve met an Elizabeth. You probably have, too.

Torres’ extravagant visual metaphors include golden keys, angsty dolls, cryptic eggs, fantastical play sets and floating hourglasses that vanish when a visa seeker’s residency is up. It’s a social problem drama with the frippery of a Michel Gondry romance; Torres is as invested in systemic inequality as Gondry is in heartbreak. The whimsy works because the bureaucracy is just as absurd. When a lawyer (Laith Nakli) tells Alejandro that he needs $6,000 to file his paperwork, yet it’s illegal for him to hold a job, our broke hero imagines himself in a maze of stairs, an escape room with no way out.

There’s a too-muchness about “Problemista” that feels like a charm bracelet manacled around your wrist. The barrage is at its best when we’re meant to feel overwhelmed. As Elizabeth launches into one of her rants, the score bristles, invisible gremlins start to mutter, and we’re transcended into a hellscape patrolled by Swinton in a series of increasingly spiked blouses. The chaos melds into an aria of panic.

But anyone who has scraped by in a miserable gig will recognize — and be re-traumatized by — the film’s more mundane torments, like Elizabeth’s assumption that Alejandro can float the cash to overnight her a package. From personality to hair to puffed sleeves, she takes up so much space that you can hear Torres accusing people like her of preventing younger generations from finding a foothold in the city. The storage unit for Bobby’s freezer is bigger than Alejandro’s bedroom.

And yet, the film comes around to admiring Elizabeth, a little, for rejecting today’s impersonal digitalized world. In scene after scene, she attacks unaccommodating employees who explain that they’re just following rules. Our empathy is with the 20- and 30-something workers who’ve been trained to act like bland robots and, like Alejandro, are just trying to make rent.

Still, Elizabeth’s insistence that she will not settle for being a cog in the machine becomes the movie’s battle cry. “Serve me! Serve me!” she wails. “Human being! Human being!”

‘Problemista’: Rated R for language and a sortie into cleaning boy kink. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters.

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