Writer, director, and star Julio Torres sets himself as a comedic voice worth paying attention to.
Socially conscious comedy comes in a lot of different stripes. There is a delicate balance—the comedy can fall flat if the film is simply a means to deliver a message, but the social commentary can feel limp and toothless if you put too much weight on the comedy. Luckily, we have an exciting new voice in the genre, as Julio Torres has perfectly translated his dry, absurdist sensibility to a new medium. His directorial debt Problemista, which debuted at SXSW this year, mixes his wry observational humor that casts its gaze on systemic injustices with both fury and wit.
The central premise of Problemista doesn’t suggest a hilarious comedy: Torres plays Alejandro, an El Salvadoran immigrant who lives in New York and dreams of creating toys for Hasbro. But as anyone familiar with Torres’s “Wells for Boys” sketch on Saturday Night Live might suspect, Ale’s ideas for new toys are a bit esoteric. To keep his work visa active, Ale works at a cryogenic lab as a monitor, maintaining the space for a frozen artist named Bobby (RZA) known for his oil paintings of eggs. But when Ale accidentally unplugs the back-up generator for Bobby’s cryo-pod, he is soon desperately searching for a new sponsor to keep him in the country.
Luckily he meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), Bobby’s wife, an art critic with a notorious reputation in the New York art scene. Alejandro attempts to get himself in Elizabeth’s good graces, hoping to work as an assistant with her to help mount a show of Bobby’s art to raise money to maintain his spot at the cryogenics lab. But Elizabeth is unpredictable, cruel, and manic, constantly berating people only to remind them not to yell at her when they calmly try to explain that they are trying their best. She seems impossible to please, especially when her every demand is inscrutable, impossible, or both.
All of this could be fairly dry and flat, but luckily Torres’s energy elevates what sounds on paper like a very flat premise into something wild and unfettered. Alejandro’s struggles with the impossible circumstances of immigration expectations in the United States are cast in visually innovative ways, including getting stuck in a seemingly endless staircase of cubicles that carry him through labyrinthian paths. He imagines his difficult conversation with Elizabeth as if he were trying to slay an exhaustingly chatty dragon. He envisions Craigslist as a hedonistic god, towering over him with increasingly unsettling demands. Alejandro is something of a cipher for Torres, soft-spoken but endlessly inventive, re-imagining the strange, frustrating world around him in increasingly ludicrous and hilarious ways.
But as skilled as Torres is as a performer, his skills as a director are really what inspires. His playfulness with visually inventive scene dressing adds a kinetic sense of mayhem to scenes that nominally show maddeningly dull drudgery, down to having a conversation with the bank about overdraft fees. Perhaps more exciting is Torres’s work with actors, as his scene work with Swinton brings out a side of the legendary actor rarely seen before. As Elizabeth, Swinton locks into a manic energy that allows her to cut loose; when she berates a waiter for simply doing what she asked him to, it is both infuriating and captivating, as she exists at only one speed. When she does have quieter moments later in the film, it reveals a depth to Elizabeth previously believed impossible. She would easily be perceived as the villain of the movie, a less self-aware version of Miranda Priestley, but Swinton uses Torres’s script to depict a more complicated character, someone who is desperate for some sense of power in the world and demands it through pure force of will. She is terrifying and horrifying, but time and again, Ale finds himself admiring her despite how cruelly she treats him.
The closest thing that Problemista reminds me of is Boots Riley’s wildly imaginative Sorry to Bother You. But while Riley’s sense of humor and social commentary leans more on righteous anger and fury, Problemista takes a slightly lighter touch. Its observations of society’s uneven structures is no less angry, but Problemista also takes time to bask in the absurdity, to acknowledge that while things can drive us crazy, there is a spark of humor to be found and some fun to be had. It is an ethos that suggests that sometimes when something that makes you want to scream, the best you can do is laugh in its face.