Problemista Review: To Slay the Dragon

Tilda Swinton roars in zany comedy

Alejandro Martinez is on a quest. Like a knight in medieval times, he faces a task that requires bravery and strength of spirit. It demands courage in the face of danger and a knack for slaying dragons. Navigating moats, tunnels, handsome princes in a foreign land, this quest proves the biggest challenge of his life.

The thing about Alejandro’s journey, as Problemista shows, is that not everyone feels prepared to be the knight in shining armour. Director, writer, and star Julio Torres offers a zany spin on the pursuit of the American dream as Alejandro gallops into New York from El Salvador with hopes of making it in the toy business. But like many foreign workers who arrive in America, Alejandro quickly learns that he has to work his way up—and toil 24/7 in an unforgiving land while trying to fulfill the aspirations for which he left his mother (Rotting in the Sun’s Catalina Saavedra) behind at home.

His day job consists of archiving work for an artist, Bobby (RZA), who is cryogenically frozen. It’s a chill gig—until he trips on the chord, unplugs the freezing chamber, and gets fired. Luckily for Alejandro, though, Bobby’s bat-shit crazy girlfriend, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) is a full-throttle patron of the arts.

The arts critic takes a shine to Alejandro and offers him freelance work. It’s an exhausting gig—Elizabeth wants Bobby’s modest collection archived, sorted, and indexed on File Maker Pro, but even King Arthur’s finest wizard couldn’t master that program.


Torres makes an affable feature debut with Problemista as writer/director. A scribe for Saturday Night Live and a Peabody Award winner for the HBO series Los Espookys, Torres knows how to take the cultural pulse and twist it with a good zinger. Problemista revitalises tropes of coming of age/starving artist/migration encounter storylines with some madcap energy that’s wacky enough to feel fresh and smart enough to avoid being twee.

There’s some sharp commentary here, too, on the perversion of the American dream, the bureaucracy that stifles it, and the systemic inequality that keeps it elusively beyond reach. Many of the paper pushers whom Alejandro encounters are racialized minorities or immigrants themselves (or second generation). Through the situations in which Alejandro finds himself, like getting the rigmarole by the bank, performing kinky sex work, or dealing with immigration, his encounters frequently put him in conflict with people who know what it’s like to be in his shoes, but have to push the status quo on which their paychecks rely.

Insult meets injury when Elizabeth lands a nepo-baby hire, Bingham (Fire Island’s James Scully, perfectly cast). A himbo pretty boy who masters the art of failing up, Bingham offers the antithesis of Alejandro’s foibles. He doesn’t even need to try to pull the sword from the stone. He knows that someone else will just hand it to him.

Problemista tasks Alejandro with one brave task after another to succeed on his quest. While scrambling to secure a job and enough money to procure a work visa, Alejandro faces rows with his dragon-lady and her File Maker Pro cannon fire. Self-consciously cheesy vignettes add camp and colour to Problemista. Alejandro imagines himself as a noble knight ready to slay the dragon and earn his seat in court. All the while, Isabella Rossellini narrates the farce with a storybook cadence. She drolly illuminates Elizabeth’s distorted reality with some jovial asides and much-appreciated fact-checking.


Torres proves an amiable lead and his wry passivity really lets audience feel what it’s like to be in Alejandro’s shoes whilst enduring someone as manic, demanding, and riotously draining as Elizabeth. The character is a total bag of cats and Swinton really lets the dragon roar by injecting the part with gusto. It’s a tricky feat, playing a character this big in a film that finds its charm through mannered humour. But Swinton and her Scottish brogue offer a zany foil and ally alike for Torres’s knight. They both really know how to slay a dragon. Slay, queens, slay!


Problemista opens in theatres on March 22.