“A breezy, eminently enjoyable filmmaking satire that gets its laughs simply letting its actors gamely play off each other.”
by Ken Bakely
It’s often just a lot of fun watching Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s Official Competition, and a lot of that comes down to how it takes a formidable core cast and gives them a hangout movie. This is a breezy, eminently enjoyable filmmaking satire that gets its laughs simply letting its actors gamely play off each other. There’s not much else to it, really. The film winds up and then you watch it go. It begins when Humberto (José Luis Gómez), a billionaire who has just turned 80, grows concerned that thus far, his legacy will consist solely of making money. Wanting to be remembered for something else, he abruptly decides to finance a film, something he has never done before nor expressed any interest in doing. It will be a masterpiece, he decides. The source material is an acclaimed novel he has never read a word of. He hires Lola (Penélope Cruz), an unpredictable avant-garde director, to direct; she summarizes the book – a tale of two warring brothers – to him, and then says that she probably won’t follow the plot much anyway. She enlists the leading men – self-absorbed A-lister Félix (Antonio Banderas) and brooding acting teacher Iván (Oscar Martínez) – and they set off on an off-kilter and intense rehearsal process, with increasingly bizarre efforts to explore their characters and piece together a film whose origins are as strange as its process.
They will not get along, of course, and things will only get worse as they proceed through pre-production. Official Competition’s farcical brand of comedy allows its leads to examine their characters’ eccentric personalities and the situations they’re in with a nimble but chaotic energy, moving from piece to piece like sketch comedy. The film revolves around three people who are fundamentally very serious about themselves – quietly juxtaposed against the cynical, decidedly unserious way that this project has come to fruition in the first place – and there’s no room for compromise on any front. Their interactions are intense yet fundamentally awkward; extreme yet pathetically shallow. Predicaments are faked as mere demonstrations of dramatic ability and awards are destroyed in industrial shredders in the supposed aim of creative renewal. It’s mightily entertaining to watch these characters at work, with Lola’s over-the-top auteurist tactics growing as shockingly outsized as Félix and Iván’s rapidly growing dislike of each other. The cast is given a lot to chew on, devising performances that presumably have a basis in their past collaborations. Cruz realizes her character with maybe the greatest relish, with Lola given much to do through all of her wild techniques, but Banderas and Martínez bring much to their variously conceited and aloof roles, as the script (written by the directors and Andrés Duprat) draws the two men out as two opposing caricatures of differing kinds of actors – the methodical performer and the Hollywood high-roller.
The pleasure of seeing them act through increasingly absurd scenarios is usually more than enough for Official Competition to pay off, even though there really isn’t much heft to its satirical aims beyond taking broad aim at high-profile, prestigious artistry and the uncompromising personalities therein. There are, however, certainly times when it seems like the film shows hints of a more direct and biting approach than its goofier overall style is interested in or perhaps capable of supporting; in the first scene, much is made about Humberto wanting to wipe his legacy clean by funding art, though the character, as ripe for parody as anyone else here, is seen relatively infrequently after the fact. You could uncharitably say that whatever point there is to all of this is actually pretty rote, since actors and filmmakers have relished few targets more than, well, acting and filmmaking. But that would discount the clever and breezily enjoyable accomplishments that are brought to the table here, and which are indeed capable of incorporating some ambitiously big moments and surprises peppered along the way. It’s a movie that’s done well, with evident care and craft – effortlessly extracting some great comedy from its otherwise minimalist setup, thanks to a cast that commits with spectacular enthusiasm for the material.