Continuing the trend of The Simpsons doing everything first, Official Competition feels like the specificity of the art world satire in The Square filtered through the episode wherein Mr. Burns realizes he’s not well-liked and decides to finance a movie about his life in order to build his legacy. But there is no non-union Mexican equivalent of Steven Spielberg in charge of a bad biopic about a cruel billionaire old man, but the best of the best in the film world trying to make a masterpiece — just for all the wrong reasons.
The result is a movie engineered to be a crowd-pleaser in the setting where it is premiering: a movie about the absurdities and pretentiousness of making a prestigious awards film, premiering in official competition at one of the most prestigious film festivals around. Thankfully, it works like gangbusters.
When pharmaceutical millionaire Humberto Suarez (José Luis Gómez) turns 80, he realizes he has no legacy to speak of, not one that regular people would care for or remember. His solution? To finance a big and lasting work of art, maybe a bridge, or even a movie. Not just any movie, mind you, but a great movie, one based on a Nobel Prize-winning book he didn’t care to read but spent an absurd about of money buying the rights to, starring the two biggest stars in the country and directed by an acclaimed director loved by critics.
It is up to Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) to manage the two big egos playing the two brothers at the center of the film, which will be titled “Rivalry.” There’s Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), a heartthrob and sex symbol, one of the highest-paid actors in all of Spain, and there’s Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), an acclaimed giant in the theater world, but not one who ever broke into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
Argentinian directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (The Man Next Door, The Distinguished Citizen), manage to get a lot of mileage out of the premise of Official Competition, despite it being mostly a series of vignettes where the two actors struggle to put their egos aside and work together. There are arguments about the number of awards each has won, about how many children they have and with how many partners (when Banderas’ Félix is asked, he says it’s only one, and points down to his crotch), and other frivolities. Meanwhile, much of the comedy is derived from the experimental and outright cruel ways Lola tries to get a good performance out of her actors during rehearsals.
Cruz is a tour de force as the eccentric director, showing subtle hints of vulnerability hidden behind the grand gestures of a tyrannical genius, like when she forces Iván to repeat the first line he says during rehearsals six times (“Good evening”) for seemingly no reason, or when she literally has a crane hanging a boulder over the actors’ heads to make their performances feel more real. Likewise, Banderas looks like he’s having a ball just exuding confidence playing an over the top version of himself as the biggest actor around, one with absurd contract clauses like not being able to have his face touched by anyone, boasting about his latest paycheck and conquest, before he demonstrates why he’s the biggest actor around by playing drunk at different levels from one to ten. Banderas also gets arguably the greatest insult scene since Steve Martin’s parade of F-bombs in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, proving why Spanish is such a beautifully foul language.
In many ways, Official Competition, written by the two directors as well as Andrés Duprat, feels like a Christopher Guest movie without the mockumentary style, but just as specific in its satire. This is a movie designed for the Film Twitter crowd that obsesses over behind-the-scenes details of every production out there, as well as the awards prospects of movies that virtually no one has seen yet. It takes just a couple of rehearsal sessions for Félix and Iván to start discussing their Oscar prospects, only for the latter to say he’d never go to the Oscars to be their token Latino presence — only for the very next scene to show him practicing a speech.
The satire and critique don’t stop at the production level, either, with journalists and a festival press conference also getting more than a few jabs thrown at them, with the kind of self-regarding questions that will be familiar to anyone who has ever sat through a Q&A session at a film festival. It may be a bit too inside baseball for general audiences, but for those in the know, Official Competition is the perfect homage and takedown of the film industry in years, and certainly its funniest.
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