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REVIEW – “Official Competition”: A Long, Strange, Witty Ego Trip

Official Competition Still 5
Oscar Martínez as “Iván Torres,” Penelope Cruz as “Lola Cuevas,” and Antonio Banderas as “Félix Rivero” in Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s OFFICIAL COMPETITION. Courtesy of Manolo Pavon. An IFC Films release.

What can be shared on screen about the filmmaking process that hasn’t already? It’s a concept well in the back of Mariano Cohn (4×4) and Gastón Duprat’s (My Masterpiece) shared mind. Something he rolls with from experience, based on ego. Actors might be notorious for them, even down to it clouding their decision-making skills. And irritating the directors they work under, worse so during a shorter timeframe. The clock might not be anyone’s friend in Official Competition, the duo’s inclined caricature of bruised identity and business ethics. The wobbles that are known to exist when mounting a film for production. And for once on screen, nothing’s left invisible, or to chance. Grievances will be aired, animosity exposed, and cleverly humorous inroads built.

That might not be what anyone thinks about when considering legacy. Particularly at the end of one’s life, when we’re looking for that final rubber stamp. At age 80, retired pharma exec Humberto (Jose Luis Gomez) knows he isn’t getting any older. Thus, he recognizes the most lasting way to preserve his legacy is by financing a major feature film. Something of high quality where those lucky few involved would feign pride in shaping its production. For this endeavor, an adaptation of the fictional hit novel “Rivalry,” he entrusts Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) to come out of her hermit shell to direct. In turn, she immediately casts Odd Couple-like mismatches Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) for the two leads on a trial basis during rehearsal. The pair soon prove their immediate disdain for one another, an element Lola hopes to exploit and refine while searching for truth in their developing performances.

The pressure is on for Lola to deliver a winning product, with Humberto having shilled quite a bit for the rights to make a movie out of a hit novel lacking franchise cache. The once esteemed director rarely escapes her own world unless it’s to dig deep into an actor’s psyche. She does just that with both Félix and Iván, discovering their souls and the dense armor protecting their fragility. Félix is seen as a study of medium crossover, having proven his success on both sides of the Atlantic, brushing aside offers to play an astronaut in a stateside production to remain focused on Lola’s oddball practices. Iván’s more the elder leader, a teacher of performance in his spare time, spinning caution to new students of the minuscule spareness that comes with breaking into acting.

Their collective experience only aids them to a small degree as Lola continues to pull the strings, to a highly comical effect in Cohn and Duprat’s unhinged perspective. The aim might be for a kind-hearted parody, but it still strikes the jugular with a brutal pace. The deliberate contrast in personality only ignites the film’s blazon path of comic anguish, never staying in one mode of emotion for too long. Yes, it’s a serious enough story, where competitive behavior overthrows logical thinking. Though it’s plenty silly as well, with Lola’s oft-demented exercises granting the largest laughs. Notable examples include extracting the dread out of Félix while standing directly below a heavy boulder. Or the senseless destruction of one’s notable career awards through a garden shredder, while wrapped in plastic to reinforce unbridled rage.

And to no surprise, Cruz eagerly sells the tricky pixie girl like it were her career aesthetic. Seeing through the deceptive machismo his subjects blast through with a figurative stink eye, her very presence sets the tone, lights up the room, and awakens the soundwave (specifically with the art of kissing). The chemistry she shares with Banderas has never really faded, following in footsteps still fresh from 2019’s Pain and Glory. She carries an endless supply of tough love and sultry snark in her arsenal, knocking her bestie’s defenses down several pegs.

He and Martinez are fighting to no end for her approval during these weeks of practice rounds, the obstacles distancing further away from reality at each turn. Martinez sees these events with a mildly existential curve, accepting his weakness as a follower, and lacking the false pride of his co-star. These reflexive dynamics keep this trio well on their toes through to the end, sustaining some manner of surprise without resorting to slapstick, or other shortcuts. Not once do they cheapen the idea of keeping a viewer guessing where the story goes next, it’s honest and mostly lighthearted.

Both Cohn and Duprat thrive in the unpredictability of their tale, much like one should know how to conquer the instability of real life, particularly when fostering newfound creativity. Given the right amount of space to take a satirical spin on filmmaking’s absurdist element, Official Competition well encapsulates both joy and turmoil when placing emotion and selfdom under a precise microscope. One with Cruz eyeing the results, leading a rowdy ship kept from sinking by the disrupted hubris of her colleagues. It’s a true joy to see this trio be so playful with the given material, and illustrate the meaning of professional dissension. And if so inclined, learn that actors are people too, funny as it may seem to believe otherwise. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

Official Competition opens in Seattle (SIFF Egyptian) and Tacoma (Grand Cinema) July 1, VOD August 2; rated R for language and some nudity; 115 minutes.