Like the old adage about Chinese takeout, “Official Competition” is enjoyable while it lasts but offers little long-term nourishment. The latest in the cinematic pantheon of filmmakers eating their own, Spanish directing duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s satire of moviemaking is not as clever as it thinks it is or as ruthless as it should be. But it’s awfully funny, with visual and auditory gags occasionally worthy of Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton, and with just enough formal complexity to resist being dismissed as navel-gazing escapism.
The film begins not on a movie set but in the high-rise office of a multimillionaire CEO who, on occasion of his 80th birthday, casts about for a legacy project for his twilight years: a bridge constructed in his name, for instance, or perhaps even a movie! So he options a prizewinning book, an epically intimate, East of Eden-style saga about two feuding brothers (which he admits he hasn’t read), and finances a lavish adaptation. He hires Lola Cuevas (Penelope Cruz in a glorious shock of red curls), a renegade director with a track record of obtuse art movies, and she casts as the fatalistic siblings Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), a dashing Hollywood lothario, and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), an elitist actors’ actor little-known in the mainstream.
Alive to the two or three meanings its title implies, “Official Competition” follows the production from its first rehearsals through its premiere, a period of calculated one-upmanship, psychological mettle-testing and tension-heightening theatrics from these three tempestuous creatives. In perhaps the movie’s most marvelous sequence, Lola deploys an illusion worthy of a stage magician to compel her actors through an emotionally precarious scene; in another, she punctures their egos by tampering with the physical manifestation of them: their acting awards.
At their best, Duprat and Cohn capture the blurriness between character and actor, and parts within parts, reinforced with a visual palette replete with mirrors, windows and screens that reflect this doubling and tripling. At their weakest, their plotting can be so schematic that I was able to predict the third-act twist.
Ultimately, while the directors certainly punch up in their cynical takedown of the industry, the targets are so caricatured that the uppercuts merely graze: The ignorant financier only interested in cinema as a vanity project, the vain celebrity with a girl in every port and a contract stipulating that “you can’t touch his face,” the sanctimonious thespian contemptuous of any and all commercial concessions.
Cruz’s demanding auteur, despite her wacky acting games, comes across as the most realistic and sympathetic figure, though I’m biased: It’s so rare to see a woman behind the lens of a movie-within-a-movie—not to mention in, you know, actual directors’ chairs—that Cruz’s casting is a welcome novelty.
“Official Competition” opens today at the Wellington Cinema 8 and Regal Oakwood 18 in Hollywood.