‘Problemista’: Tilda Swinton Is a Tornado in Julio Torres’ Wonderfully Surreal Immigrant Story

Julio Torres, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer behind sketches such as “Well for Boys,” “Papyrus,” and HBO’s comedy series “Los Espookys,” brings his brand of surreal and whimsical humor to his directorial debut “Problemista.” Torres also writes and stars in this feature that follows the journey of Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer who finds himself working for a human tornado in the form of Tilda Swinton’s art widow.

Like Torres, Alejandro grew up in El Salvador and came to New York City as a young man to achieve his dreams. Since childhood, his mother Dolores (Catalina Saavedra) has nurtured his creative aspirations and has been his biggest champion. He comes to the States in order to apply for an incubator program at Hasbro, but truth be told, his ideas, which includes a Cabbage Patch doll that receives mundane texts and a Barbie who crosses her fingers, are not very good. This makes it all the more surprising when one of his designs is stolen later in the film. Fortunately, the focus of “Problemista” is not on this silliness, but on Alejandro’s relationship with his high-strung boss, art critic Elizabeth (a terrific Swinton), and immigration struggles.

Torres effectively plays Alejandro with a quiet strength. Because he is shy and does not come across as being overly confident, people easily underestimate him, but there is a lot going on underneath the surface. His first job in New York is working at a cryogenics facility, but he is fired after he accidentally unplugs a cord, losing a shot at being sponsored for a visa. On his way out, he encounters Elizabeth, whose late husband, artist Bobby (RZA), faces eviction if she cannot come up with more funds. She ends up hiring him to be her assistant, and the odd couple work together to sell  Bobby’s paintings in order to keep him frozen.

To put it mildly, Elizabeth is not an easy boss. She’s entitled, can go full Karen at the slightest inconvenience, and believes knowledge of FileMaker Pro is one of the most useful skills an assistant can have. Her and Alejandro’s relationship eventually becomes mutually beneficial, but it is a rocky road, not in the least because of his immigration troubles. Torres drives home how those wishing to obtain visas have the odds stacked against them as Alejandro navigates a labyrinth of bureaucracy. He legally cannot accept money from Elizabeth if he wants her to sponsor him, but it is six grand alone just to fill out the paperwork. 

As Alejandro is not the most expressive person when it comes to his own emotions, Torres finds creative ways to show the audience what is going on inside of him as he faces conflict. While dealing with the immigration lawyer (Laith Nakli), we see him navigating stairs. While being yelled at by Elizabeth, he is doing battle inside of a cave. In order to stay afloat, he takes increasingly demeaning gigs off of Craigslist, and Larry Owens plays his menacing guide through that job sewer. 

Meanwhile, outside of his imagination, rich kid Bingham (James Scully) becomes a foil to Alejandro after Elizabeth brings him on to also assist her, and hilarity ensues as the oblivious and smug himbo becomes a thorn in his side. Other interesting characters who seem like the type of people one only meets in NYC include Celeste (Greta Titelman), Alejandro’s Etsy entrepreneur roommate who barely blinks when he brings on a rando to sublet his room.

As for Elizabeth, flashbacks of marriage with Bobby reveal a different, more vulnerable side of her. In one of the film’s most funny and emotional scenes, she goes to see her husband’s mistress (Greta Lee) in order to retrieve one of Bobby’s paintings for an exhibit. Alejandro, who turns out to be brilliant with words, helps her apologize for a past transgression. But the best parts of “Problemista” are when Alejandro finally finds his own voice and speaks up for himself. Turns out, sometimes it pays to be a bit of an Elizabeth.

Problemista” releases March 1 in select theaters, March 22 nationwide.