Problemista review – Tilda Swinton lifts uneven debut on visa purgatory

<span>Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista.</span><span>Photograph: Jon Pack/FreezeCorp/A24 Films</span>
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista.Photograph: Jon Pack/FreezeCorp/A24 Films

As testified by numerous documentaries, many journalistic investigations and countless lived experiences, the United States immigration system is a purgatorial, deliberately confusing, dehumanizing hell. Getting here, let alone staying here, can be a confounding maze of dead-ends and Kafka-esque double binds, an impossible staircase of bureaucracy. The metaphors come easy; the system lends itself well to magical realism, as poignantly realized in the new A24 film Problemista, in which immigration is a literal maze of drab cubicles, an hourglass counts down one’s days till deportation, and applicants are physically disappeared by a bland visa denials.

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Problemista, the winsome debut feature from writer/director/actor Julio Torres, is at its best when the erstwhile SNL writer and creator of the HBO show Los Espookys applies his considerable talents and dry whimsy to the experience of being ground down by such a cold, illogical behemoth. Like Torres, Alejandro Martinez is from El Salvador and harbors creative dreams in the US. While his mother (Catalina Saavedra), an artist who whipped up Alejandro’s childhood imagination into fantastical escapades, remains at home, Alejandro ekes it out in Brooklyn (Bushwick, to be exact, and it feels pretty exact).

For such a punishing system, Problemista, which premiered nearly a year ago at SXSW (the dual Hollywood strikes pushed its original fall premiere), is nimble, starry-eyed and often funny. Perpetually wide-eyed and bewildered (and narrated by Isabella Rossellini), Alejandro aspires to design toys for Hasbro with a deadpan bent – a slinky that doesn’t go down stairs, a doll with her fingers secretly crossed, a Cabbage Patch kid with a phone and texts about a weird spot on her tongue. It’s unclear how serious the ideas are supposed to be – the film seems to think they’re more humorous than they are, in the vein of absurdist sketch comedy – but the bathos clicks for the deadening, false cheer of post-pandemic corporate life. Zoom interviews and hiring portals into which you pour your hopes and dreams are cringe, but gut-punchingly so when it’s someone as hopeful and earnest as Alejandro speaking into the void and hearing nothing in return.

In the meantime, Alejandro works at a futuristic cryogenic freezing company, managing the frozen body of a semi-failed artist named Bobby (RZA) for his as-yet-unrealized re-emergence – a layer of unwieldy, bold absurdism the film never fully balances with its shrewd observations of the mundane and unglamorous, but manages to carry nonetheless. Eager but unfit for corporate drudgery, Alejandro loses his job, throwing his visa into limbo lest he find another sponsor; his best option, to everyone’s dismay, is Bobby’s wife Elizabeth (an excellent Tilda Swinton), a vituperative former art critic determined to recover Bobby’s legacy.

Elizabeth is a brittle, formidable creature, an artifact of the past – shoulder pads, sloppily magenta-hued hair, frozen in her own cryogenic tube of self-importance. Swinton sinks her teeth into the role, brimming with quicksilver disdain and yawning vulnerability. A tornado of demands, she’s what several waiters would aptly describe as a Karen, if she weren’t so obviously pathetic and isolated. Soft-spoken and accommodating, Alejandro makes an ideal assistant, helping Elizabeth to market Bobby’s paintings of eggs (lol) and, in one of the better bits, pretending to know how to use Filemaker Pro.

Such is the game Alejandro must play to potentially secure a visa, supplemented by cash from Craigslist (personified as a voracious, leering heap by the comedian Larry Owens). Torres aptly plays Alejandro as a wisp at the whims of bigger forces. He shuffles as if a character in a video game, barely placing weight on the ground, one puppet string of hair always aloft. Alejandro is frequently steamrolled by life and the system (Laith Nakli, aka Ramy’s Uncle Naseem, plays his well-meaning but blunt immigration attorney); for a comedy, Problemista is a precise level of stressful, as Alejandro resorts to ever riskier steps while his bank account and hourglass drain.

For as frustratingly passive as Alejandro can be, Torres is an appealing, endearing presence, and Swinton’s adept calibration keeps Elizabeth from being fully insufferable; there are lessons in her ability to say “no” or, more accurately, “none of those options”. Alejandro’s options may seem limited, but the film’s imagination abounds, at times to a fault. Midway through the its brisk 98-minute run time, it’s hard to see how the disparate pieces will come together. They never really do, particularly as Problemista leans into the futuristic bits (as in, the cryogenic stuff), making for a bumpy conclusion. But it’s fun to watch Torres try, or to feel the drama cannily milked out of trying to read an email on a shattered phone screen or burning a CD-Rom in time. The predominant mode of Problemista is playful, its comic sensibility curious and askew – enough to make the film, a promising if uneven debut, a delight throughout.

  • Problemista is out in US cinemas on 1 March and in the UK and Australia at a later date