Some folks have it easy, and others make life difficult for themselves. Guess which type “Problemista” is about.
The perpetually unsatisfied title character, a demanding New York art critic played by Tilda Swinton as a hag with hair the color of hibiscus tea, is obsessed with archiving the life’s work of her late husband (RZA), who left behind a series of egg paintings no one seems to understand. Swinton feels like a future Halloween costume in search of a movie in writer-director Julio Torres’ overly kooky and all-too-quixotic debut — another attention-deficit comedy from the studio that made “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” except that Torres lacks the technical experience to pull off even a fraction of the ideas to which he aspires.
That’s a waste of such an up-for-anything talent as Swinton, who’s presented here as the human equivalent of a fire-breathing dragon. What isn’t remotely clear is why, from the moment this insufferable woman appears on-screen, Torres’ character, an aspiring toy designer named Alejandro, would want to work for her. His excuse, as best as the movie can explain, is that he’s from El Salvador and living in New York on a temporary visa.
Ale’s just been fired from FreezeCorp, a quack company that sells people the promise of putting them in cryogenic sleep until future scientists develop the technology to revive them, and Swinton’s Elizabeth might be willing to extend his visa. The odds of her actually doing so seem extremely low, although that’s the very loose premise that brings these two characters together: Elizabeth, a high-maintenance personality with a knack for creating conflict wherever she goes, and Ale, who sought out the most difficult place he could live after being coddled his entire childhood. (“The Maid” star Catalina Saavedra plays his artistic mom, who looks concerned on the other end of frequent calls back home.)
What Ale really wants to do is make toys for Hasbro. According to him, the problem with all the kids’ products on the market these days is that “they are a little bit too preoccupied with fun.” Contained in that line is a clue to Torres’ peculiar sensibility, developed over years as a stand-up comic and TV writer, first for “Saturday Night Live” and later as the creator of oddball HBO sitcom “Los Espookys”: “Problemista” knows it’s not for everyone and seems not at all conflicted about leaving the vast majority of people out of the joke. Meanwhile, there’s hardly any rhyme or reason to the cast. (Why RZA? What is Larry Owens doing here as “Craigslist”? And hasn’t Isabella Rossellini narrated enough artsy-fartsy indies for one lifetime?)
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I find it tough to identify with characters who come across as passive agents in their own lives. The film describes Ale as a dreamer, but Torres plays him as a slump-shouldered incompetent, shuffling through life like a shy teenager, his hair arranged (with one stray stand always sticking up) to suggest he can’t even operate a comb, much less FileMaker Pro, the overcomplicated database app that Elizabeth considers to be his lone job requirement. Surely Ale, with his kill-joy toy ideas, can appreciate that old chestnut: It’s called “work” for a reason.
No one should have to tolerate such an entitled boss as Elizabeth, and yet, the movie’s funniest moments are micro-sketches in which she “becomes a problem” for whomever the nearest wage-earning customer service representative might be, whether it’s an Apple tech support agent (“Where are my photos? You’re erasing my memories!”), an oblivious waiter or hapless Ale himself. “Don’t scream at me!” she yells, should one of these minions dare to talk back. She may be dressed like a gyaru street punk, but Swinton conducts herself like a holy terror from a previous century who’s been waited on by servants all her life — and that’s amusing, up to a point. But it can’t be the only joke a movie milks for 104 minutes.
Torres does take aim at other targets, but they feel pretty mundane by comparison. He doesn’t understand why Bank of America levies fees on customers with no money, for example (most comics get that one out of their system pretty early), and he spends a lot of time unpacking the perverse job offers one can find on Craigslist (depicted here as a fabulous genie in a demented parallel dimension). Ale agrees to be a “cleaning boy” in one scene, but it feels like he forgot to include the punchline.
“Problemista” is most effective when it’s offering a millennial take on the absurdity of bureaucracy (Ale’s fellow immigrants literally disappear when their visas expire) and the awkwardness of working for a tyrant like Elizabeth. Director Terry Gilliam has covered much of this territory before, most famously in “Brazil,” from which Torres borrows the image of an endless labyrinth of tiny rooms. That movie was misunderstood by its studio, Universal, whereas filmmaker-oriented A24 seems to have put too much faith in its director here. For all his funny ideas, it doesn’t feel like Torres has a consistent world view, and the movie is poorly organized and unwieldy as a consequence.
Bizarre glimpses of Ale’s fairy-tale childhood do not a proper backstory make, and wanting to work for Hasbro hardly feels like a serious goal. Torres gives Ale a roommate and a rival (James Scully), but fails to do much of anything with them, preferring to let Swinton chew the scenery for most of the movie. “Problemista” doesn’t know where to go with it all, to the extent that Torres can’t decide between three endings — demanding a job at Hasbro, paying homage to unsung artists and flashing forward three centuries. That’s the downside to the “Everything Everywhere” approach. At a certain point, you want to snap back, “Don’t scream at me!”