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Release Date: 03/01/24 [Cinemas]
Genre: Comedy.

Studio: A24. 

"Alejandro is an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador struggling to bring his unusual ideas to life in NY. As time runs out on his work visa, a job assisting an erratic art-world outcast becomes his only hope to stay in the country." 


Benjamin Franklin lied when he said the only things certain in life were death and taxes. In 2024, debt, bills, and overdraft fees are all completely unavoidable - and that’s only in the area of finance. Crippling anxiety, depression and self-doubt should also be on the list, but while they all impact how we experience life, none of them actually threaten our livelihood like having money does. As if determining where our next meal or the roof over our head wasn’t enough, money distracts us from accomplishing our goals. We get so caught up trying to survive that we forget how it feels to thrive. We settle for temporary comfort rather than long term support. It’s a frustrating truth, and while some films have attempted to explore it before, none have done it as cleverly or as humorously as Julio Torres does in his feature directorial debut, Problemista.


Told as a surrealist fairy tale, the film follows a young man by the name of Alejandro (played by Torres), who moves to New York from El Salvador with the dream of becoming a toymaker for Hasbro. Until he figures out how to make his dream a reality, Alejandro takes a job at the fictional company FreezeCorp. As the name implies, it’s a company that specializes in cryogenically freezing sick people until a cure for their sickness can be discovered in the distant future. While the job, or its many tedious responsibilities, don’t exactly align with Alejandro’s long term goals, it provides him with a work visa that enables him to remain in the country. 


Just when Alejandro thinks he has his whole life planned out, a careless error costs him his gig at FreezeCorp and puts his citizenship in jeopardy. With only 30 days to find a new sponsor before being deported, Alejandro finds himself working several odd jobs to try and make ends meet. When a promising position opens working for the widow of a cryogenically frozen artist, however, Alejandro finds himself going to new - and frustratingly unrealistic - lengths just to keep his dream alive.


Watching Problemista, you can feel the frustration of an entire generation through Torres’ Alejandro. Although the character Alejandro also becomes flustered with the system he’s trapped in, writer/director Torres has a blast poking fun at how ridiculous society has become. As previously mentioned, the film is told like a storybook fairy tale, complete with a narrator, monsters, and side quests. While it starts off feeling like a simple and creative narrative choice, as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Torres is trying to show us that modern life might be stranger than fiction.


This is best demonstrated by this recurring idea and imagery of a red-eyed monster that lurks in a cave near Alejandro’s childhood home. During the film’s prologue, the narrator tells the audience that Alejandro’s mom is fearful that one day the monster will devour her son. The  monster can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for the real world, but it also serves as a universal lesson about deception. However absurd Alejandro’s experience is, the world is never really as scary as it seems. What makes it scary are the people who inhabit it.


Now, Tilda Swinton delivers yet another memorable and iconic performance as the widow whom Alejandro befriends. While her character’s name is Elizabeth, she is the ultimate “Karen.” In fact, there’s no better way to describe how miserable of a person she is than the way the film does. She is the human embodiment of the Greek mythological creature the hydra. Instead of cutting off one head, and two more growing in its place, every time she is offered a solution to a problem or an argument, she just starts another one. From ordering a salad to searching for her keys, there isn’t a single action she doesn’t make difficult. As if Alejandro didn’t have enough on his plate, because he sees Elizabeth as a potential sponsor he finds himself constantly stretching himself thin to please her. She is, without a doubt, the titular “Problemista.” But the biggest problem with her character is that, as much as you want to hate her, you can’t help but love how much fun Swinton is having. 


In terms of broader problems, the film really only has one. While Torres is careful to maintain the story’s cynical tone throughout, the resolution comes too quickly and too conveniently. While this is supposed to be a fairy tale, the way Alejandro’s struggle ends doesn’t feel entirely earned. Still, that doesn’t take away from the film’s message or its endless array of laughs.


Problemista will probably go down as one of the funniest films of the year for its commentary on the gig economy alone. But it should also go down as one of the best films of the year for its understanding and handling of the new cost of living. In a world where you have to pay to play, Torres tells us that there’s another way. Kindness is the best currency, and anyone who doesn’t have it isn’t just broke. They’re the real problem.

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