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Problemista Review: Magical Realism And Monster Karens

  • A wildly imaginative perspective on immigrant struggles
  • The punchlines and character payoffs are great
  • Some running gags get dragged out and get a bit annoying

From the official plot description, you might expect "Problemista" to be a certain type of indie film: the sort of quirky yet down-to-Earth character-driven comedy-drama where awkward outsiders learn predictable life lessons from each other while dealing with serious social issues. That expectation isn't entirely wrong, aside from the "predictable life lessons" bit and to an extent the "down-to-Earth" descriptor. But take one look at the trailer and you'll quickly see this is also a very different sort of indie: a magical realist freakout with absurd comedy and wild production design.

A24 currently seems to be in the business of producing a film like this for various American demographics: "Everything Everywhere All at Once" for Asian Americans, "Beau is Afraid" for Jewish Americans, and now "Problemista" for the first-generation Latinx immigrant experience. Directed, written by, and starring Julio Torres — a former "Saturday Night Live" writer and co-creator of HBO's Spanish language cult hit "Los Espookys" — "Problemista" falls somewhere in-between its recent genre buddies in terms of quality and general sensibility. It probably won't be the crossover blockbuster and awards juggernaut "EEAAO" became, but it's far more accessible and much better paced than "Beau."  It's a worthwhile piece of entertainment that could easily end up being a cult favorite.

The OTHER Barbie movie

Alejandro is a young man with a dream: to design toys for Hasbro. Current toys, he claims, are "too much fun," so for his portfolio, he's humorously redesigned various classic toys including Slinky, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Barbie to better reflect the frustrations kids must face in their real lives. Hasbro is probably the only brand that comes off semi-positively in this film; a running gag about FileMaker Pro and one hilarious scene about Bank of America — which has an additional punchline hidden within the closing credits — might count as the exact opposite of "product placement."

As a child, Alejandro lives in El Salvador with his artist mother, who brings his whimsical architectural designs to life in the rainforest. To pursue his dream career as an adult, however, he must leave the safety and comfort of his mother's protection and immigrate to the United States. In order to stay in the U.S., he needs a work visa, and yet he can only apply for his dream job if he's residing in the States. In the meantime, he has to take on other jobs to retain his visa. If he's unemployed and unsponsored for long enough, the sand in his hourglass will run out and he will simply disappear from existence — a whimsical yet effective metaphor for the horrors of our immigration system.

Towards the start of the film, Alejandro loses his job at a cryogenics facility after accidentally unplugging the chamber holding Bobby (RZA), an artist who froze himself in hopes of a future cure for his terminal cancer. Alejandro's new hope for sponsorship comes from Bobby's art critic widow Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), who needs an assistant to help her keep track of the whereabouts of her husband's paintings of eggs. The problem: Elizabeth is the boss from Hell, a whiny, vindictive, and supremely disorganized Karen who might be a literal monster, at least from Alejandro's perspective.

While waiting for Elizabeth to actually provide him sponsorship, Alejandro has to break the rules of his visa to make ends meet and take embarrassing side gigs from Craigslist. The job-posting website is anthropomorphized here as a malevolent Ursula-esque creature played by Larry Owens. Actually getting the sponsorship seems to always be just out of reach for Alejandro. He can never seem to live up to Elizabeth's expectations, and she'll bring on a wealthy white nepo-baby (James Scully) as an intern before she'll sign his paperwork.

Trapped in cycles — and finding ways of escape

How much you'll enjoy "Problemista" depends on your feelings about cringe comedy. Tilda Swinton is going full ham as the most annoying person imaginable, and if you're expecting Elizabeth to grow or learn much of anything, you'd be mistaken. Her incapacity to change means that the scenes of her screaming the same complaints get incredibly repetitive, though some of these repetitive running gags eventually work their way back around to being funny in a "Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes" sort of way. That she holds any sympathy from either Alejandro or the audience is due to a combination of the backstory regarding her and Bobby's romance and a begrudging respect for how driven she is to honor her late husband's wishes.

This intense pursuit of personal goals is the one thing she has in common with the meek, passive Alejandro — at least at first. Since Elizabeth is more or less the same person at the end of the story as she is at the beginning, it's Alejandro who ends up having an actual character arc as the one learning from her. The payoff for how this ends up happening is absolutely delicious.

Julio Torres seems to be asking the question of whether marginalized people can utilize what might be called "Karen energy" to achieve their goals. I don't know how seriously this argument is being made or if it's merely another fantasy in a film filled with fantastical elements. Without delving into spoiler-y specifics, however, I can say that Torres' depiction of his character's transformation is a crowd-pleasing comedic highpoint that solidifies an already funny film as a winner.

"Problemista" premieres on March 1.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.