An early draft of this review was originally published on April 4, 2024,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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Would you rather see great storytellers for the screen invest their creativity in television series or standalone movies?

In my devotion to pop-culture’s conversation about movies, I strictly limit my attention to conversations about television series. While everyone’s encouraging me to watch The Bear and Succession and Atlanta and Fargo, I count the cost of such engagement in hours and consider how many movies I might see and write about in the amount of time a TV series would demand. That’s why I still haven’t seen more than an episode or two of Breaking Bad, or even Mad Men.

What’s more — my only opportunities to watch television occur in my limited hours at home with Anne, and as I love her company I will only commit to watching series that also appeal to her. We would rather spend our time together buried in books and filling up notebooks, not staring at screens. And our interests in onscreen art and entertainment only occasionally overlaps. So that limits what I’m likely to watch. (None of the titles I’ve listed above have appealed to both of us, and thus they remain unknowns.)

Am I missing out on great stuff? I’m sure that I am. All the time. But when it comes down to decision-making, I would rather see a complete work of art than an episode that has been largely influenced by a storyteller’s need to keep audiences coming back for more.

Once in a while, though, something gets its hooks into Anne and me both. We are card-carrying members of the Taskmaster cult — specifically the original version with Greg Davies and Alex Horne — because we love British humor, and because we need heavy laughs to help us cope with the layers of hardship that weigh on this season of our lives.

Julio Torres leaps to the big screen as Alejandro in Problemista. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

And it was laughter that drew us to visionary world-builder Julio Torres’s extraordinarily imaginative series Los Espookys. We loved both glorious seasons. We were dazzled by Torres’s wild, unpredictable, and singular imagination, and even more impressed that it was all coming from the mind of one of the colorful cast’s youngest players.

I was intrigued — if a little skeptical — to see that Torres was shifting his attention to big-screen comedy. Selfishly, I scowled. I want more Los Espookys! I love that world. I love that cast. I love those characters. But I trust Torres enough to follow him just about anywhere at this point. What would he do with a larger canvas? What could he accomplish with a two-hour, uninterrupted narrative?

And so, here we are — with Problemista.

The trailer certainly suggested that this would be a movie from the same imagination and for the same audience, with the added bonus of a big, crazy Tilda Swinton performance. And it is that.

Alas, I nevertheless find myself hoping that Torres will go back to television. Problemista is never less than amusing, but it inclines me to believe that Torres’s hyperactive and irrepressibly good-natured imagination works best in short form. Either that, or maybe my imagination can only engage in such light-heartedly whimsical calisthenics for about 30 minutes at a time.

Catalina Saavedra plays Alejandro’s resourceful mother. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

In a promising prologue narrated by Isabella Rossellini (her voice is more precious to me than ever thanks to her affecting work in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On), we learn about Alejandro’s El Salvador childhood, where his mother Dolores (Catalina Saavedra, who was so good in The Maid) prophesies an epic adventure in his future, one that will lead him to face a dragon-like threat in a dark cave. She also cultivates his imagination, and thus equips him to be creative and optimistic even in the face of heavy adversity.

And so, Alejandro begins his American adventure, aiming to survive the punishing ordeals of the U.S. immigration process. He faces challenges finding places to live, getting along with roommates (like Spray, played by Los Espookys’ memorable Spike Einbinder), and waiting in waiting rooms and immigration agencies for some kind of progress or grace. He’s motivated by a dream of becoming a Hasbro toy designer, which sets us up to imagine a Problemista / Barbie crossover sequel. The two movie worlds seem remarkably compatible, and Barbie plays a part in Alejandro’s portfolio of audacious ideas. Alas, this movie world’s Hasbro, like the Barbie movie’s Mattel, seems less like a real-world corporation and more like an impenetrable fantasy-world fortress guarded by monsters.

Alejandro waits and waits in the Kafka-esque U.S. immigration process. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Things get worse for Alejandro when he loses his job at FreezeCorp, a company that seems like a close cousin to the Lacuna company in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Where Lacuna offered to delete people’s memories so they could start fresh without pain, FreezeCorp offers to cryogenically freeze people so they can be resurrected in a better future. It looks like the film is setting up another cynical take on how technology’s idealistic promise only leads us to bigger problems. But Julio Torres isn’t that kind of storyteller. While FreezeCorp kicks Alejandro to the curb (with what is arguably a good reason), the company will come back to haunt him — and, ultimately, bless him. But I’m not going to spoil anything here.

Desperate to get a new job that will sustain him in order to avoid deportation, Alejandro jumps at a chance to work for Elizabeth, an eccentric and technologically challenged woman who is grieving the loss of her partner’s recent death and trying to fulfill his dreams of having a great solo show for his paintings of eggs, images which come to amplify Alejandro’s unfulfilled American dreams.

Tilda Swinton is unhinged and hilarious as Elizabeth, Alejandro’s best hope for a sponsor. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Elizabeth seems happy to employ Alejandro, but will she agree to be his sponsor? That’s the crucial question, and it means that Alejandro will have to devote himself to satisfying her every whim, which includes coping with her wildly irrational preferences when it comes to devices, software, and business management models. It should be obvious from her fiery fuchsia hair and her posture (which I can only describe as Nosferatu-like) that Elizabeth is the monster who was waiting in his mother’s dark dream cave. But Torres’s world is the kind of place where dragons that seem scary at first just might end up being friendly, like the Abominable Snowman in that classic Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer TV special, the one who just needed some delicate dental attention in order to become his best self.

Elizabeth isn’t the only problem in his path. His attempts to break into Hasbro with his inspired ideas for toy designs brings more trouble than opportunity. It seems that somebody is reviewing applications and portfolios for ideas instead of for employees, and pretty soon Alejandro is faced with the difficulty of pursuing a job at a company that is already exploiting him.

Another obstacle arrives in the form of Dalia (Past Lives’ wonderful Greta Lee), a former student of Elizabeth’s husband who refuses to give up one of his essential paintings.

Greta Lee plays Dalla, who presents Alejandro with one of many unexpected threats to his sponsorship. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

And when his work for Elizabeth takes a painful turn, Alejandro ends up sinking to even greater depths of desperation, taking jobs that ask far too much, and exploit him in dreadful ways — ways that might startle and upset even those who anticipated that Problemista would be a dark comedy.

I’m sorry to say it, but almost any episode of Los Espookys works better for me than Problemista does. Perhaps my hopes were too high. But I’m more impressed by his more concentrated, multi-layered mode of storytelling. The farther I follow Alejandro, the more the gravity of the movie’s real-world troubles chip away at the effectiveness of Torres’s more fantastical flourishes.

What’s more, in his narrative zigzagging, he hits a few potholes. In such a determinedly, good-humored fantasy, you can’t ask the audience to absorb heavy crises without giving them sufficient time to reckon with those crises. There’s a scene here in which Alejandro, bargaining with a supernatural villain called The Craigslist Demon, reluctantly accepts a job to earn some quick cash and then finds out he’s taken the bait of a sexual predator. What follows seems to catch Torres the Storyteller off guard, and he tries to course-correct quickly as if hoping we’ll forget that episode. I can’t. It’s sort of like discovering an extended cut of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in which Pee-Wee discovers human trafficking, and then he’s just back on his bicycle, whistling. When you slow down long enough to raise such demanding real-world problems, it’s hard to just go back to childlike playfulness without it feeling like stubborn naïveté.

Torres’s fantastical imagination introduces us to the maddening labyrinth of U.S. immigration policies. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Still, there’s much to enjoy here. Above all, we should appreciate that Torres gets from the great Tilda Swinton one of the most ferocious performances of her extraordinary career. Somehow, this actor under the direction of this storyteller finds some new notes to play: the ever-abrasive Elizabeth as presented to us through Torres’s compassionate gaze gives us that rare character who is both a personal assistant’s Worst Nightmare Customer and someone whose aggressive ignorance we tolerate in the hope that she can find her way to stability and peace.

And as a big believer in the power of imaginative parenting to prepare children for all of the inevitable hardships of adulthood, I applaud Problemista’s picture of a mother who encourages her son’s playfulness. It’s that belief in possibility and creativity that serves Alejandro through his darkest hours.

So please understand — I’m not hastily dismissing this film. It’s delivered in a spirit of playful improvisation, and I believe in the power of “Yes, And” storytelling. And it’s about so many important matters that I care about. Do I empathize with Torres in his lament over the Kafka-esque labyrinth of the U.S.A.’s immigration “system”? Absolutely. Do I affirm Torres’s — forgive me, Dua Lipa — radical optimism? Sure thing.

Laith Nakli is Khalil, one of Alejandro’s only allies in his quest for a visa. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

But when it comes to translating such fantastical busy-ness to the grand canvas of the cinema, we need someone who can manage the tricky business of a tonal balance. There are films like Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, and now Greta Gerwig’s Barbie that invite us into fantasy worlds that look very much like our own, and that somehow address heavy real-world matters without disrupting the enchantment.

And while Torres shows great flair when it comes to colorful sets and wacky wardrobes, he needs a stronger sense of what is possible on a big screen. We need a composer of truly cinematic images behind the camera for a film with ambitions as big as this one. Much of this movie looked like television to me. (In fact, I can recall much more cinematic images in a season of Los Espookys than what I found here.) I wonder what would happen if Torres partnered with stronger visual imaginations. I found myself wondering what the inspired collaborators Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro might have done with this, or Eternal Sunshine’s Michel Gondry.

Alejandro’s time may be running out. But Julio Torres is just getting started. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Ah, but Torres is still just getting started. Maybe this will prove to be for him what Bottle Rocket was for Wes Anderson — the one we look back on fondly as the first step in an extraordinary ascent to greatness. In the spirit of our inspirational hero Alejandro… here’s hoping.

And hey, Julio Torres, if you’re listening — please don’t take my quibbles with this film as complaints. I won’t hesitate to buy a ticket to your next movie. And if you go back to television, I’ll follow you there too. The time invested in your world-building imagination has been well worth the time I’ve invested so far.