Problemista review — Millennials, meet Kafka and Filemaker Pro

Written and Directed by Julio Torres | 104 min | ▲▲▲△△ | Hoopla

Julio Torres likes to imagine visual representations of the twisted obstacles of life, from the grim reality of a Craigslist search — Torres (who also stars) suspended and restrained in a purple, swirling void speaking to a demon — to his efforts to be a legitimate working immigrant in America — a horrific reality represented by a cutaway of endless offices connected by tunnels and filing cabinet staircases. The filmmaker’s visual imagination sings in this tale of a frustrated El Salvadorian toymaker looking to grab his own chunk of the American dream. His first feature is nothing if not unique, which is both a strength and weakness.

Torres is Alejandro, a 20-something living in a tiny room in New York and dreaming of being a toymaker at Hasbro. He’s applied to Hasbro’s talent generator but hasn’t had any response. In the meantime he’s landed a job at a firm that cryogenically freezes people until the tech exists to thaw them out safely. Until then, they collect fees from their loved ones. A painter, Bobby (Rza), frustrated for not seeing recognition for his genius in his time — 13 paintings of eggs — has decided to get frozen, leaving behind his art dealer wife, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton). When the cryogenic company fires Alejandro, he starts working for Elizabeth. She’s in desperate need of an administrative assistant and he needs a sponsor for his work visa.

Elizabeth is also practically demonic — her eyes literally glow red as she rages at everyone around her. A lot of this would be a cartoon if it weren’t for Swinton, who puts on a strangely mercurial Irish accent and a whole lot of bizarre outfits, single-handedly giving the film a personality beyond “indie quirk.” Her obsession with data programs and her husband’s legacy provides the picture with its heart and smattering of genuine laughs, of which it could really use more. Torres is a veteran of the Saturday Night Live writer’s room so you’d think all this would all be funnier. It gets dark in the right places, but it’s missing a lot of wit.

You’d be forgiven for coming away from this peculiar picture wondering how it got made — the answer is maverick American studio A24, taking another risk with a young talent — more power to them. What Torres’ film does well is nail the common frustrations of bureaucracy, technology, and systemic inequity through an almost psychedelic lens. What it doesn’t do is make much sense or have us genuinely invest in its protagonists. It ends up being a solid New York movie, capturing the city’s dog-eat-dog energy as its diverse denizens all try to make a go of it.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.