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film review


Written and directed by Julio Torres

Starring Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton and RZA

Classification R, 98 minutes.

Opens in Theatres March 22

Tilda Swinton can’t do “less.” It’s not that she does too much; whatever she does is pretty much perfect. But the sizzle of her synapses is simply too evident in her eyes. She can stand utterly still and fry you like an egg.

In Problemista, Swinton plays Elizabeth, a manic but marginal New York art critic whose lover, Bobby (RZA), is a painter who’s had himself cryogenically frozen. At FreezeCorp, she meets Bobby’s minder, Alejandro (Julio Torres), an immigrant from El Salvador who dreams of designing un-fun toys: a Barbie with her fingers crossed behind her back, Cabbage Patch dolls who mean-text. Elizabeth hires Alejandro to catalogue Bobby’s work, and then torments him with outrageous demands and abrupt mood swings. Even her hair trembles.

Screenwriter Torres, making his directorial debut, is the kinked mind behind Los Espookys and some of your favourite SNL sketches (including “Papyrus,” the Avatar-font fever dream starring Ryan Gosling). His Alejandro, deceptively mild-mannered, is actually the guy who can’t stop touching the wasp’s nest. Elizabeth is the stinging swarm, and Swinton gives her delicious line readings. Watch her eyes dart as she asks Alejandro over lunch, “Who else is vegan? Someone awful.” Watch her mouth twist when she greets an ex-assistant with, “Your skin looks … better.”

Tilda Swinton makes a case for so-called 'difficult people'

Yet Swinton’s power is such that Elizabeth is less a boss from hell, and more a person who carries so much hell around inside her, it can’t help leaking out. When Elizabeth sounds off about a privileged colleague – “He has no idea what it is to desperately want something” – Swinton stops your heart. Somehow, she and Alejandro unlock something in each other.

The film is very funny, but also so jam-packed – with fairytale imagery, art world tropes, caustic roommates, uncaring institutions – that as you’re watching, it can feel a bit much. I mean, the street garbage is curated, and Isabella Rossellini does the narration. But I bet days after you see it, you’ll find yourself thinking about the panic in Elizabeth’s eyes. I bet you’ll have a bit more patience for the next Problemista you meet.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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