Problemista; Tilda Swinton’s erratic brilliance saves absurdist comedy: Sydney Film Festival Review

There’s a sense of too many eggs in one basket present in Problemista, a loaded-with-ideas, absurdist comedy from comedian Julio Torres who treats his first-time feature as if he may not get the chance to do a second.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with the ideas that Torres – a former Saturday Night Live scribe, and serving as both writer and lead here – puts forward, more that they feel as if they need more breathing room.  One of the main ideas present in Problemista surrounds Torres’ Alejandro, a dry-witted, optimistic(ish) El Salvadorian who has moved to New York City in the hopes of creating toys for the Hasbro company; one of his quirky ideas is that of updating the Cabbage Patch Doll to include an attached cell phone.

Hasbro aren’t just going to give him a job off the bat though, and being a foreigner means he also requires a visa to work in the country, and to satisfy that he’s found employment as the overseer to the cryogenically frozen body of Bobby (RZA), an artist who has put himself on ice in order to awake hundreds of years in the future.

After a slight mishap at the office – Bobby’s chamber may or may not have been accidentally unplugged on Alejandro’s watch – the poor chap finds himself at the mercy of Elizabeth (a film-saving Tilda Swinton), Bobby’s erratic art critic wife, who intends to keep the rent payments up on his new chamber by selling his artwork collection, an extensive series of egg drawings.

Almost framed in a manner similar to Anne Hathway’s relationship with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Alejandro learns Elizabeth’s demands are next-to-impossible to solve, but he refuses to back down from such, partly out of spite, mostly out of necessity; even the appearance of the boyishly handsome Bingham (James Scully), a secondary assistant who she seems to take more of an immediate shining to, isn’t enough to entirely ruffle the desperate Alejandro’s feathers.

Whilst the softening of their relationship is somewhat expected, where Torres takes Problemista is less telegraphed, and it’s clear that as a writer and director he’s well versed, respectively, in dry, absurdist humour and the necessary whimsical energy needed to express such; there’s an almost Wes Anderson-ness to proceedings.

The likeliest issue most could face with the film – aside from the aforementioned issue of tackling too many ideas across 105 minutes – is that Torres himself is a divisive presence.  His mix of boyish innocence and deadpan cynicism won’t necessarily warm him to the masses, and he’s further at a disadvantage when sharing the screen with Swinton, who, in a wild wardrobe and frazzled magenta wig, absolutely dominates with an effortlessness that would stir even the most seasoned professional.

There’s a lot of promise and potential present in Problemista, and if Torres gets the opportunity to flex his imagination again, a slightly more streamlined execution could really solidify him as the abstract storyteller he so clearly is.


Problemista is screening as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, running between June 5th and 16th, 2024.  For more information head to the official SFF page.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.