Not since Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket (1996) have I detested a debut feature to the degree that I loathed watching Julio Torres's Problemista. But all opinions about movies are subjective, and I can't explain the intensity of my negative reaction to this small, harmless, surrealist comedy any more than I can describe why I felt that sitting through the 91 minutes of Anderson’s light, cheerful caper picture was like having nails driven into my eyes. In both cases, it has something to do with my inability to see past the filmmaker to see the film—or the filmmaker's inability to create a cinematic world I can buy into. I had no prior awareness of Torres (a former SNL writer and co-creator of the HBO series Los Espookys), just as I didn't know Anderson or his co-writer and star Owen Willson when I saw Bottle Rocket. But with each, I felt like I was watching the maker of the movie constantly winking at me through the screen as if saying, "Hey, look, I'm making a movie!" I realize this minor level of meta-awareness is precisely the quality that charms many people about quirky indie debut features like this one, so if that's your bag, I hope you take my harsh pan as an endorsement.
Torres plays a Salvadoran immigrant named Alejandro who has many generic-ironic Millennial concepts for toy design that he views as highly original. When his work visa runs out, he's trapped in the hellscape of the U.S. Immigration system that requires him not to work while gathering a lot of money to pay legal fees. The impossible expectations our country places on its newest arrivals is an important subject that hasn't gotten a comical treatment in a movie before, but Torres uses it more as a jumping-off point than as the actual theme for his story. Alejandro lands a job as an assistant to a well-worn stereotype of a Manhattan art-world outcast played by Tilda Swinton in yet another exaggerated caricature. Would I have liked this movie better if the principal role had been played even broader by someone like Jennifer Saunders or by a New York stage actor who could have played it like they were actually of this world? I sure think so.
The surrealist picture is derivative of many other filmmakers—Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Terry Gilliam, Miranda July, and The Daniels—but it never feels cinematic the way their work often does. Problemista plays more like a series of TV sketches that all have the same premise. Torres takes on important themes with feeble jokes and skit-comedy scenarios that feel twenty years stale. There's not a single moment in this movie where you don't feel the hand of the filmmaker/star all but begging you to find his whimsical observations funny, timely, and meaningful. But he's unwilling, or unable, to create situations that authentically engender connection on anything more than the most surface level. The voice-over narration from Isabella Rossellini that's occasionally dropped in at random moments sure doesn't help. As with Swinton, there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to the frequency of a great, iconic actor getting brought in to do something "unexpected" that they've now done many many times before in far better films.
It really has been since Bottle Rocket that I've had this much trouble adhering to my belief that one should never walk out of a movie because, sometimes, things turn around and you wind up responding to the film enough to return for a second viewing, which enables you to see past the film's flaws and appreciate its charms. Such was not the case for me with Problemista any more than for Bottle Rocket. But, hey, Wes Anderson survived my zero-star review of his first picture just fine, and he went on to write and direct a few movies that, even I must admit, are excellent. Perhaps Torres will too.
I found Julio Torres's semi-autobiographical surrealist comedy about a young immigrant who gets a job working for an NYC Art World outcast the most tedious debut feature since Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Feel free to take that as an endorsement.