AS Program Board Screening: “Problemista”

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Ariana Duckett

Copy Editor & Senior Staff Writer

The UC Santa Barbara Associated Students Program Board hosts Free Tuesday Films, showing free movies every week at the Isla Vista Theater. On May 20, “Problemista,” which was released March 1, was shown at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. I attended the 9:30 p.m. showing.

The surrealist comedy “Problemista” follows Alejandro (Julian Torres), who dreams of becoming a toy designer but must first battle the convoluted immigration system of the United States. He struggles to find work in the competitive and unresponsive New York City job market. His dream job is at Hasbro, which does not bother to respond to his job application. He instead finds an opportunity as an archivist at FreezeCorp, a company which cryogenically freezes people who want to wake up in the future, and is currently trying to find a way to safely wake everyone up.

After being fired for making one simple error, he must rush to find a new sponsor of his visa and raise money for his application fee. He crosses paths with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a short-tempered art critic whose artist husband has been frozen at Freeze Corp. He only wishes to wake up to a future where he and his art — oil paintings of eggs — will be appreciated.

“Problemista” captures the absurdity of Alejandro and Elizabeth’s adventures with sharp accuracy, while raising awareness of some of the most eccentric American concepts that continue to be upheld today. Alejandro is not allowed to receive credit card payments, but he must raise money for a lawyer and application fees, so he is told he can do jobs that only give him cash. This leads him to strange and borderline uncomfortable gigs and situations to gain enough money. The bedroom of his apartment resembles a shoebox despite his constant efforts to make money. Elizabeth, who is running out of money to keep her husband cryogenically frozen, must also brainstorm strange and hilarious tactics for raising the funds. Their ambitions link them strongly, creating a believable and endearing on-screen friendship that stays with the viewers long after Alejandro and Elizabeth’s adventures come to an end. 

Julian Torres directed, produced, and wrote “Problemista” through A24. He gained prominence for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and has continued to produce profound and creative storytelling for the screen. Though there can be something unsettling about surrealism, which neither admits nor denies the existence of abnormal elements of human existence, “Problemista” handles them quite well. Any scenes which diverge from realism connect to Alejandro’s childhood or struggles to be successful. For example, as he scours Craigslist for cash-only gigs for his work visa, he enters a colorful universe ruled by a drag queen-esque person whom he speaks with to gauge which jobs he will apply for. Though the aim of surrealism is to communicate that which the unconscious cannot communicate otherwise, if every trippy scene in “Problemista” was removed, it may maintain its imagination and story arcs anyway. 

I consider surrealism to work on a spectrum: too much can make the work too unrelatable to emotionally connect with, and too little can make the element underappreciated, undermining the purpose of its inclusion at all. 

Though the plot itself of “Problemista,” raising money to keep someone cryogenically frozen, is itself a bizarre element that the surrealism compliments, some of the dreamlike scenes feel out of place. 

Surrealism can also make an experience feel isolating because of how personal it is, but personal connection is how art gets communicated. “Problemista” makes an analogy for Alejandro trying to get his work visa: it’s like being stuck in a single office cubicle, quickly finding a way out which leads to another office cubicle, which has the same way out to a third office cubicle, and so on. The scene is uncomfortable for many reasons: the claustrophobia of being trapped in an empty office, the fear of never getting out, and the lifeless decor of the room with its single desk and chair and no windows. These truly target the issues of the immigration system, turning people with big dreams into administrative transactions that they can barely escape. Alejandro continuously succeeds in exiting the office through a small, awkward door in the wall of each room, which only leads to identical rooms where he must escape through the same way. He does everything right, which both advances him through the endless process but also brings him no further forward. The system ignores his personhood and his dream, the reason he is trying to immigrate in the first place. Though “Problemista” may leave viewers with a confused shake of the head, like being dragged out of a strange dream, it’s also an anthem for those who just want to make their dreams come true.

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