Friday, March 1, 2024

Another film occupies its own world


   No one is likely to accuse Julio Torres, the writer/director of Problemista, of lacking ambition. 
   In his mischievous debut film, the former SNL writer and creator of the sitcom Los Espookys, tackles the maddening complexities of emigrating to the US, the insular hypocrisies of the art world, and the coming-of-age problems of one young man.
   That's a lot and Torres’s movie can't handle it all, even with humor and bold, if often silly, displays of creativity. The movie can feel like a scrapbook of ideas set aside for another day.
   Like many immigrants, Alejandro, played by Torres, has a dream. He aspires to design toys for Hasbro, a career that might be an overreach. Consider the duplicitous Barbie-like doll with fingers crossed behind her back, for example. Or how about the truck with the flat tire, intended to teach kids a cautionary lesson?
  To support himself, Alejandro works at a company that freezes corpses for future unthawing. He soon meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a former art critic whose late husband's body resides at the facility from which Alejandro is in the process of being fired.
   Sporting an unruly crop of red hair and a badly curdled temperament, Elizabeth obsessively works to establish the reputation of her recently departed husband (RZA), an artist who specialized in paintings of eggs nestled in billowy folds of fabric.
   Thanks to Swinton's embrace of her character's fury, Elizabeth blows through the movie with tornadic force.  A sharply offensive woman, she cuts no one any slack. As a character, Alejandro can't compete with her.
   Now and again, Alejandro communicates with the doting mom (Catalina Saavedra) he left in his home country of El Salvador. She believes she can solve any problem her son might encounter, a conviction that has diminished Alejandro's capacity for self-assertion.
   Lacking much by way of ordinary reality to play against, Torres's whimsical approach swamps the movie.  And at times, the movie goes self-consciously bonkers, notably in its depiction of a character called Craigslist (Larry Owens), a surreal embodiment of the website devoted to classified advertising.
   Despite Elizabeth's scourge-like presence, the film's overall tone is only mildly satiric, a movie that too often feels as if it has taken its own idiosyncrasies as its subject.
  Torres treats the film like a playhouse for his imagination. For me, the movie’s ideas, though sometimes clever, didn't always translate into enough laughs: The net result: Problemista left me wishing Torres better luck next time.

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