The art house film biz gets a long overdue send-up courtesy of Spain’s finest
Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | June 30, 2022
Opens July 15
n the 25+ years I’ve covered film, I’ve interviewed many actors — enough to notice certain tendencies. British “thespians” think of acting as a craft, no better or worse than other jobs. They’re a joy to talk to. Argentines are fun, the French are edgy (I’ll take Lea Seydoux’s complicit glance to my grave) and the Chileans are rather full of themselves: Paulina García (Gloria) tore me a new one because I hadn’t read an obscure play she was starring in. Never meet your heroes, kids.
All this is to say the unashamedly acrid Spanish comedy Official Competition does the Lord’s work: it takes a few recognizable archetypes in the industry, and exposes them with no mercy. More notably, the movie features Spain’s brightest stars Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas — both game to lampoon themselves and their habitat.
A bored billionaire hoping to etch his name on something before dying decides to invest a few million in a movie (beats a penis-shaped rocket). He doesn’t care what the film is about or who’s in it, as long as it hits the awards circuit and notches a few wins. He buys the rights to the signature novel of a Nobel Prize winner and hires an art house darling to direct it, the fiery Lola Cuevas (Cruz in a massive red wig).
A master at manipulating actors, Cuevas hires a Spaniard with international cred, Félix Rivero (Banderas) and stage veteran Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez, Wild Tales). The leads become antagonists immediately: Rivero thinks Torres is pedantic and his distaste for awards is just posturing. Torres, in turn, believes Rivero is an aging pretty boy who makes a living out of playing thinly disguised versions of himself.
Cuevas convinces the feuding co-stars to participate in several weeks of rehearsals, while she pokes at them from the sidelines. None are willing to pull punches and soon Lola’s plan becomes a melee of recriminations and mental games. It’s not lost on anybody (but them) that they’re profoundly insecure and live in fear someone may notice they’re frauds.
Banderas and Cruz have a recent history of working with director Pedro Almodóvar. But the directors here are Argentines Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat. Ostensibly shot during the pandemic, Official Competition unfolds in a mostly empty conference centre — a setting that allows the high-wattage cast to bring their A-game.
Banderas and Martínez don’t have to stretch too far to find their characters, but Cruz is a hoot as the eccentric filmmaker with a sadistic streak. I’ll take this role over the many mothers Almodóvar has made her play.
The film’s attention to detail is never not funny. Félix is never seen with the same much younger woman twice, which sounds delightful until you have to keep track of their dietary restrictions. Iván rehearses his Oscar speech in front of a mirror, which includes a rejection of the award and choice insults to those who voted for him.
Sharply written and consistently funny, Official Competition (horrible title, by the way) may be a notch too acerbic for casual moviegoers. But for those of us who read the trades and know an actor or two, it’s catnip.