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Alejandro and Elizabeth face many ‘Problemistas’

Alejandro+Martinez+%28Julio+Torres%29+and+Elizabeth+Ascencio+%28Tilda+Swinton%29+team+up+to+showcase+a+series+of+paintings+with+the+hope+of+raising+enough+money+to+keep+Elizabeth%E2%80%99s+husband+alive.
Courtesy of A24
Alejandro Martinez (Julio Torres) and Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton) team up to showcase a series of paintings with the hope of raising enough money to keep Elizabeth’s husband alive.

3.5 out of 5.0 stars
Salvadoran performer Julio Torres came onto the American comedy scene with an act unlike most had seen. His deadpan delivery and quiet-as-a-mouse disposition juxtaposed perfectly with the eccentric subject matter and big laughs he has always been able to elicit, and his first feature is no different. Posing as writer, director, producer and star, the multi-hyphenate comedian’s directorial debut, “Problemista,” takes it up a notch and taps into his incredible ability to find the heart and relatability in the strangest of situations. 

The film, released March 22 following a SXSW premiere in 2023, follows Alejandro Martinez, a fictionalized version of Torres — along with a combination of other traits —  as an aspiring toy designer on a work visa in the U.S. Despite being rejected by Hasbro, Inc., Martinez doesn’t give up, continuing to work on his toy designs while working at a cryogenic freezing facility for rich and terminally ill people. Martinez’s job is  to look after the now-frozen artist Bobby Ascencio (portrayed by RZA), who is known for his strange paintings of eggs, which received middling reception. Following a terminal cancer diagnosis, Ascencio decides to cryogenically freeze himself, aiming to wake up in the future, despite no proven way to be thawed. Martinez is given the privilege of watching his belongings until the thawing method is proven.

When Martinez is confronted by the pink-haired, demon-eyed former art critic and wife of Bobby, Elizabeth (the ever-committed Tilda Swinton), he soon finds himself in need of a new job to sponsor his time in the States. Following his dismissal from the company and the rising price of Bobby’s care, Martinez and Elizabeth team up to put together a show of all of the egg paintings in the hope of making enough money to keep him frozen. 

Elizabeth’s delicate temper poses its challenges, though. Despite her tenderness in her good moments, get on her bad side and one will face her wrath. Known in the NYC art circles as “the hydra” for her ability to light careers on fire with her breath and the violence of her multi-headed attitude, she is a force to be reckoned with. But she is Martinez’s only shot to stay and live his dream. 

What Torres does best in this film is letting the plot and story take a back seat in favor of the characters driving each moment. It creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity with the characters by the end of the film. These characters are driven by their insecurities, secrets and ulterior motives, but Torres instead focuses on the tender moments between humans who finally understand one another and want the best for others in such a beautiful way. 

Elizabeth, for all of her “nightmarish” qualities, has a deep care for her husband, a deep and profound respect for his work, and the desperate need to know that her marriage hasn’t just ended with her husband freezing himself without a plan to wake up. Her talent in being a “problem,” in disrupting the anonymous corporate entities that block a more idealistic world, is one that is becoming more and more necessary, as the world is more and more impersonal. Torres and Swinton crafted this character so delicately, carefully concocting a version of the stereotypical woman with a vengeance against everyone, who always wants to speak to a manager, and giving her depth and relatability. 

She is one of the few characters in recent films that stand out as flawed but motivated and relatable. The deep anger she holds juxtaposed with the sheer amount of love and tenderness she can display is not something many writers, directors, or actors can balance in a way that looks as smooth as Swinton does it. The supporting cast is, of course, also brilliant. From Wu-Tang Clan member RZA, to great Italian actress Isabella Rossellini as the narrator, the film pulls out all the stops in its effort not to characterize people, but to humanize the characters and make them feel as real as anyone any viewer might know. 

Along with the sort of buddy comedy happening between Martinez and Elizabeth as they assemble the show and pick up the pieces of Elizabeth’s life after losing Bobby, Martinez also must contend with the hourglass slowly emptying on his time in the U.S. Without a formal job with Elizabeth, he lacks a sponsorship and an ability to legally make money in the States. The dread and stress Torres is able to achieve and push onto the viewer is beyond impressive. 

The ability of many beats in the film, whether action or dialogue that elicited gasps, guffaws or guttural laughter is truly a sign of a film with identity, a film with meaning, purpose and affection. And that’s what Torres has been doing since day one. The art he’s produced, albeit absurd, takes itself seriously. It imbues his own experience facing the unknown and how silly it can be, and allows the audience into all of the hidden emotions underneath the uncomfortable laughter. 

Despite the craziness of the world, there is art that’s there to make sense of it all, or art to challenge us in a new way. Torres’ (and in turn Martinez’s) ability to challenge and shape the perception of his own work is the sign of not only someone to pay attention to now, but someone who will be making an impact for a long, long time.

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