Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat’s charming takedown of the movie industry features giddy turns from two of the world’s greatest stars.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.)
As comic premises go, the notion of portraying people in the movie industry as pretentious vain, shallow, sex-crazed glory-hungry goofballs is about as close to shooting fish in a barrel as one can possibly get. Therefore, the trick to pulling off something along these lines is not by pretending that one is making some bold artistic statement, but by striving to make sure that it is actually funny.
Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat’s Official Competition happens to do just that, thanks to an amusing and incisive screenplay and a couple of genuinely hilarious performances from two of the world’s most charismatic movie stars gleefully skewering both the weird things that they have no doubt seen through their careers as well as their own self-images.
The film begins with enormously wealthy businessman Humberto Suarez (Jose Luis Gomez) contemplating his legacy on his 80th birthday and realizing that he wants to create something that will give his name lasting prestige. After mulling over the idea of building and donating a bridge, he instantly switches to the idea of producing a movie. Not just any movie, mind you—he will use his wealth to attract the best talent and material and by doing that, as everyone knows, artistic and financial success is all but guaranteed.
To that end, he purchases the rights to a Nobel Prize-winning novel entitled Rivalry—a book that he has not actually read nor knows its plot—and hits upon the notion of hiring celebrated auteur Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) to write and direct it.
After vowing that she plans on only loosely sticking to the book, Lola informs Humberto of her genius casting idea: to play the two rival brothers at the center of the story, she intends to hire international movie star Felix Rovero (Antonio Banderas) and Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez), an actor so self-serious that he makes Daniel Day-Lewis seem like Rob Schneider. The idea is that the two are so wildly different in their respective approaches that the inevitable tension will inform their performances.
In the pre-production rehearsals with Lola and her two actors at her spacious home, the initial pleasantries barely pass before sparks begin to fly. Ivan thinks that Felix is a lazy, grotesque cartoon who has no business being in the profession, while Felix thinks that Ivan is a pretentious bore who has no idea what it takes to be successful. Both are onto something, of course, but the rehearsals soon degenerate into a form of competition, each more concerned with one-upping the other than anything else.
Lola, not about to let their petty bickering get in the way of her vision, subjects them to a series of exercises designed to tamp down the war of egos — and remind them who’s truly in charge. (During the initial script reading, she forces Ivan to repeat the line “Good evening” with Kubrickian obsessiveness.)
The underlying ideas of Official Competition aren’t exactly fresh, but Cohn and Duprat execute them with some interesting novelties. One smart move is to concentrate on the rehearsal period, never really giving us a glimpse at the final product. A recurring problem with behind-the-scenes moviemaking satires is that the movies supposedly being made never feel especially convincing; by sticking with the rehearsal process, they avoid this problem. Instead, they mine the more fertile ground of performers with opposite approaches struggling to find common ground. Lola’s oddball exercises also inspire a lot of big laughs, especially one where she makes her two stars read through a scene while sitting underneath a giant boulder suspended above them by a crane.
Cruz has a lot of fun poking fun at auteurist types (and even channels longtime collaborator Pedro Almodóvar at times) but keeps Lola from degenerating into a cartoon. The scene where she explains her vision to a sundae-eating Humberto is one of the best moments she has ever played. Banderas, an excellent actor who just happens to also be a major superstar, also has a lot of fun as he goofs on his image without going too far over the top. Martinez may not have the celebrity cachet of his co-stars, but he’s a gem as well.
Official Competition begins to run out of steam in its closing scenes, and its ending may not be quite as biting as it wants to be. For the most part, however, it’s a very funny, sometimes thoughtful examination of the ways the tensions of real life can end up informing a film project. It also serves as conclusive proof that, for some millionaires seized with the need to leave a public legacy, a bridge might just be the thing after all.
Official Competition comes to theaters June 17th and VOD August 2nd.