Producers: Emma Stone, Dave McCary, Ali Herting   Director: Julio Torres   Screenplay: Julio Torres   Cast: Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Isabella Rossellini, Larry Owens, Catalina Saavedra, James Scully, Laith Nakli, Spike Einbinder, Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel, Greta Lee, Glo Tavarez, Eudora Peterson, Ronald Peet, Kelly McCormack, Shakina, Greta Titelman, Jack P. Mason, Theo Maltz, Miles G. Jackson, River L. Tamirez and Megan Stalter   Distributor: A24

Grade: B-

It’s easy to find fault with Julio Torres’ debut film: it’s shapeless and meandering, jumping uneasily from subject to subject, introducing characters and then dropping them without warning, abruptly going into surrealist mode and then departing it again, and dealing more in caricatures than characters.  Yet “Problemista,” boasting a deadpan narration by Isabella Rossellini, possesses a charming silliness and, despite its obvious weaknesses, is likely to leave you with a smile, while touching on some serious matters too, though without the sustained emphasis on any of them (immigration, the art world, the corporate world’s corruption) that would leave a lasting impression.

The protagonist is Alejandro (Torres), a young immigrant from El Salvador with a persistent cowlick to rival Alfalfa’s, who comes to the United States in hopes of seeing his eccentric ideas for toys earn him his dream job with the Hasbro Company.  As overworked lawyer Khalil (Laith Nakli) keeps reminding him, since he’s on a temp visa, he’ll need to find work with sponsor in order to stay in the country permanently.  No wonder the naïve young fellow—raised, as we see via flashbacks in which he’s played by Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel, in an almost surrealistically idyllic atmosphere by Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), the artistic mother he regularly calls with news of his progress (or lack thereof)—hops through New York City with a hesitant jump in each step, as though he were walking on eggs, because in a way he is: he has to tread with extreme caution in hopes of securing his future.

So he takes a job with cryogenics firm FreezCorp, where he’s assigned to keep watch on one canister, that containing the frozen body of painter Bobby Ascencio (RZA), all of whose works focused on eggs.  When he accidentally unplugs the device, he’s fired, but Bobby’s force-of-nature wife Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a former art critic who deals with those she thinks fools—just about everybody—with manic ferocity, offers him a job as her amanuensis, on the presumption (which he encourages) that he’s expert in FileMaker Pro, the complicated software program she insists on using.  His major duty is to help arrange a showing of Bobby’s thirteen paintings, acquiring those in other hands and finding a gallery willing to host it. 

Their relationship is a rocky one, marked by her volcanic outbursts against anyone—waiters, collectors, gallery owners, Bobby’s ex—who antagonize her, while she coddles Bingham (James Scully), the son of a friend who becomes Alejandro’s rival.  His situation becomes desperate as the date for his deportation draws closer and his attempts to locate another job on Craigslist (personified by Larry Owens as a kind of unhelpful genie in a lavishly-appointed harem) end disastrously (at one point he’s reduced to taking a night gig as a “cleaning boy”).  So do his arguments with the rep at the bank that charges him exorbitant fees for every charge he can’t cover.

In the final reel the film moves into extremes that prove impossible to juggle satisfactorily: a long, hallucinatory confrontation between Alejandro and Elizabeth on one hand, followed by revelations that put her in a sympathetic light that come out of left field.  And it brings a “worm turns” moment for Alejandro, who’s emboldened to take on a Hasbro executive with demands for recognition—and a job.  Yet even here he remains an innocent, without even the underlying lasciviousness that made Harpo Marx, for instance, so intriguing.  (The script doesn’t bother to provide him with a potential girlfriend, an omission that will strike some as odd—not that any of the girls he shares an apartment with, or works with at the freeze factory, come across as likely prospects.)  And to cap things off, it moves forward decades to a future where the cryogenic promise has become a reality, though if the robot shown in it is an indication, AI hasn’t advanced much.

But the effects throughout are of little consequence.  In Katie Byron’s production design, Catherine George’s costumes and Fredrik Wenzel’s cinematography more attention is devoted to drawing a sharp distinction between the colorful milieu of Alejandro’s childhood and the drab reality of America.  Continuity isn’t a major concern, either; the editing by Sara Shaw and Jacob Schulsinger just goes along with the start-and-stop nature of Torres’ screenplay, though Robert Ouyang Rusli’s propulsive score helps to overcome the hiccups.  The supporting cast contribute to the mix, but this Torres’ and Swinton’s movie, and both deliver turns that are completely committed, each in its own way. 

The title, incidentally, derives from chess terminology, denoting a person who devises board problems that users are meant to work out.  It refers, presumably, to Alejandro, portrayed as a befuddled guy who is, literally in one sequence and figuratively throughout, desperately checking out boxes to realize his dream.  But perhaps Torres also intends the picture as a narrative problem, challenging us to divine how the pieces of the disjointed movie fit together.  Whether that’s the case or not, some will find “Problemista” delicious, others irritating.  Most will fall somewhere in the middle.