Review | ‘Problemista’ injects absurd humor into an immigration nightmare

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StarSolidStarSolidStarHalfStarOutline(2.5 stars)

Fans of the surrealist humor of Julio Torres, who created the cult comedy “Los Espookys” as well as sketches for “Saturday Night Live,” will be the best prepared for “Problemista,” Torres’s feature filmmaking debut and his most personal work to date. The story is a familiar one — a young immigrant fetches up in New York to seek his fortune, only to be buffeted by a bumptious city and cut to the quick by its competitive edge — but Torres reshapes it into something simultaneously more fantastical and far more real.

Alejandro (Torres) is a would-be toy designer trying to get into an internship program at Hasbro. Meanwhile, he’s been working at a cryogenics corporation and seems on his way to obtaining a work visa until something goes awry and he’s summarily fired. His only option is to begin working for a temperamental art critic named Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), who agrees to sign his visa papers as long as he performs a series of superficially simple but increasingly Kafkaesque tasks having to do with updating the database of her late husband’s paintings with archival software called FileMaker Pro.

Alejandro’s travails in trying to placate Elizabeth form the center of “Problemista,” which is spiked with moments of magical realism (Larry Owens portrays a terrifying, seductive personification of Craigslist) and Torres’s own metaphorical imagination. He gives visual language to the impossible immigration bureaucracy in a mazelike structure of boxes, hatches and file cabinets; at one point, when Alejandro is meeting with his immigration lawyer and idly says, “We’ll see,” the attorney jots it down excitedly, saying, “That’s a great slogan for us!”

Another recurring motif in “Problemista” is an hourglass, which appears on-screen to reinforce Alejandro’s race against time. One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in how Torres communicates stress, whether at the hands of the apathetic strangers who control his fate with one mouse click, or the narcissistic, selfish, operatically unreasonable bosses who have made for can-you-top-this contests since happy hours were invented. One of Torres’s most subtle and poignant effects is having unfortunate people simply vaporize into thin air when their time is up.

Alejandro is determined to escape that fate, and “Problemista” is at its most spikily dynamic when it’s centered on his fraught relationship with Elizabeth, a potentially stock character that Swinton infuses with fiery, fearsome hauteur. Whereas Alejandro is recessive and meek — Torres plays him with a downcast, socially awkward frown and a bouncy trot that adds to the air of dreamy winsomeness — Elizabeth is a human force majeure, all magenta hair and outsize shoulder pads. Anyone this pathologically self-centered, passive-aggressive and manipulative would usually be too loathsome to like, but Swinton finds the humor and vulnerability even in her most outlandish behavior. (Catalina Saavedra plays Dolores, Alejandro’s artist mother, who is in her own kind of creative limbo back home.)

Torres’s storytelling can seem baggy and digressive at times, but “Problemista” finally becomes something greater than its parts. (Isabella Rossellini provides the fractured-fairy-tale narration.) The dream sequences, flashbacks and sidetracks don’t always succeed, and Torres’s absurdist humor is hit-or-miss. But “Problemista” turns out to be less an indictment than a warmhearted homage — to the courage it takes to leave home, the even greater courage it takes to watch our children leave home, and the difficult, demanding, dumbfoundingly confident people who teach the rest of us how to take up space, ask for more and never even think of apologizing.

“Problemista” is far from perfect, but it will hit home for anyone in need of reassurance that irrational hope can triumph over even more irrational experience.

R. At area theaters. Contains some profanity and sexual content. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 104 minutes.

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