The Art World and the American Hustle Meet in Problemista

“I stand with Bank of America!”

In a scene sure to be singled out as a damning indictment of both racial betrayal and the predatory tactics of financial behemoths, a young Salvadoran man named Alejandro (Julio Torres) entreats a Latina customer service rep (River L. Ramirez) to delete his ATM overdraft charges. “Please, Estefani,” he pleads from his smartphone. “I know you know how unfair this is ….” After a moment of soulful reflection, she faces him with a cocked pistol, declaring her fealty to her corporate employer above all else.

Fans of Torres’s whimsical comedy — from his HBO special My Favorite Shapes to his stint writing for Saturday Night Live — will find much to love in his directorial debut, Problemista, which takes a fantastical approach to depicting the very real trials of immigration and creative work. An aspiring toymaker who moves to New York with dreams of working for Hasbro, Ale has less than a month to secure a sponsor for a US work visa. His unlikely savior comes in the form of Elizabeth Ascensio (Tilda Swinton), an embittered art critic seeking to preserve the legacy of her lover, Bobby (RZA), whose body was frozen at the same cryo-bank that fired young Ale. “Stop shouting at me!” is Elizabeth’s refrain throughout the film — shouted over everybody else.

Narrated by Isabella Rossellini, the film often visually scans as a mashup of Pan’s Labyrinth and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memories of swirling minarets from the boyhood garden designed by Ale’s artist mother appear onscreen as a surrealist toys bloom in his mind: a Barbie with her fingers crossed behind her back or a Slinky that refuses to slink. Within this quirky magical world, the rampant inequalities faced by those immigrating to the United States take on proportions that would be preposterous were they not painfully accurate to the experience of millions today.

With his boyish cowlick and bouncy shuffle, Torres boasts a Chaplinesque knack for physical comedy as Ale navigates the visa process. But as much as the film lampoons the byzantine maze of immigration policies, it also throws into stark relief the excessive demands placed on anyone hustling to get by, especially within creative fields. How many might shudder at the insufferable demands of an irrational Boomer boss (who, in Elizabeth’s case, is also a bedraggled Luddite who can’t turn off her iPhone flashlight)? How many might endure the nonsense that is the unpaid arts internship, available to the precious few who can afford to work for free, or must figure out a way, in some of the world’s priciest cities?

When Ale resorts to sex work to score some quick cash, the transaction turns out to be less of a descent than anticipated. The dom who hires him is far more polite and transparent than Elizabeth, tasking audiences to question what might define untenable or demoralizing labor. As artist and sex worker Sophia Giovannitti has argued in Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex, “Sex and art, we’re told … ought to be kept separate from the ravages of the marketplace,” even though “both prop up two incredibly lucrative industries, built on the commodification of creativity and desire, authenticity and intimacy.”

From Elizabeth’s rusty Rolodex to her Ivy League intern Bingham (James Scully) nabbing a Guggenheim fellowship “for Being Cute,” Problemista skewers the art world’s open nepotism and profit-driven motives. To that end, Elizabeth’s White privilege and blue-blooded cache are certainly part of what enable her abuse of power, but race is ultimately less relevant than class. In Problemista, New Yorkers across races demand an arbitrary deference from those economically lower; to do otherwise would jeopardize their place in the pecking order. 

While Ale braves the financial drain and cumulative degradation of the visa process, Elizabeth bears the humiliation of being an art world has-been. They share a similar penchant for seemingly impossible goals — though with wildly different stakes. Even when strapped to pay for her beloved’s lengthy refrigeration, Elizabeth can rely on property ownership and patrician status to get by, a safety net unavailable not only to Ale but to millions of US creatives struggling to make the rent. 

Despite its zany plot twists and loopy score, the film will prompt, in many, the laughter of unsettling recognition. While Torres’s droll humor can at times distract from the movie’s dire themes, at its best Problemista is a scathing satire in a jester’s cap. 

Problemista is currently in theaters nationwide.

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