“Official Competition” is an arid farce about movies as “cinema,” the pretension of festivals and festival-honored films made by “critics’ darlings.”
It’s built on scenes that either hit the bullseye, or miss the mark because of slow pacing and a general dryness that might leave comedy fans a bit parched. But anyone who follows “the festival circuit” and “awards season” films will appreciate the way it skewers its targets with jokes and jabs aimed mainly at fans of serious cinema.
Argentine filmmakers Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (“4X4,” “My Masterpiece”) take a shot at ripping film festivals, art films, cinematic divas and the like with a small but elite cast and one impressively icy setting — a cavernous, ultra-modernist, echoey and empty mansion. That’s where an eccentric filmmaker preps for production and rehearses her two famous co-stars for a film adaptation of a popular novel financed by a boring, little-known rich man who wants to make “a great film” that will become his legacy.
José Luis Gómez is Humberto, the “millionaire” (he’d better be a billionaire) whose 80th birthday reminded him of his relative anonymity. He’d like to leave something behind with his name on it — perhaps an architecturally-stunning bridge? Well, a film would be cheaper.
He will hire only “the best,” starting with the criticall-adored director of “Haze,” “The Inverted Rain” and “The Void.” The film’s first laugh is our first sight of Lola Cuevas. We have never seen Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz perched beneath a mountain of red curls this vast.
Humberto’s spent “a fortune” to get the rights to the novel that Lola will “very very loosely adapt, as in “mostly ignore” as she cuts, pastes and scrapbooks her script to life.
Actors? She insists only two men could play the brothers/”rivals” in this film — the actor’s actor and legendary acting teacher Iván Torres (veteran Argentine actor Oscar Martínez of “Tu Me Manques” and “Live Twice, Love Once”) and rich, celebrated international star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas).
Their eccentric director will put them through “exercises,” stare down their bubbling “Quien es mas macho?” rivalry and use it to heighten the drama of her picture. She will bully and manipulate. Because she’s dealing with one pretentious poseur who deigns to “correct” her script, right from the start, and a movie star, who isn’t used to the formidable challenge of an egomaniac co-star, a “visionary” director and everybody else’s “method.”
It’s funny when Lola makes snobby Iván repeat his first line in the script — “Buenos dias” — a dozen or more times, trying to get a version she “believes.” It’s funny how he tries to contain his annoyance at this, and how Félix tries to hide his amusement.
Then of course, it’s his turn. Try to play a man who is drunk, trying to pretend he’s not drunk and yet drunk as a “three” on a “scale of one-to-ten.” That’s some seriously precise direction, querida.
The three of them — with an occasional assistant in the room — play mind games over who shows up first and who keeps whom waiting each day, who is the “best” actor, whose technique is more suited to this project, Mr. Deep “Back Story” or Mr. “Just Study the Words” and “play” the part.
The handsome screen star looks for leverage by coming on to the sexy director and other tricks. The actor/educator — think James Lipton without the glasses — never lets anyone on set or off forget that he’s too good for all this.
Sight gags such as the guys’ first glance at the script — a literal scrapbook of photos, pieces of photos, drawings — a 50 microphone “audition” by Humberto’s granddaughter/actress in which we hear every sloppy slurp of the makeout scene she (Pilar Castro) is subjected to, or the reason Lola has each man bring his “awards” to a rehearsal, and deploys packing tape to restrain her hired actors — pay off.
But despite the occasional outlandish moment, most of what’s on view here is mundane — bitching over fabric swatches with an art director — or at least somewhat predictable, right down to the Cannes press conference (droll, ironic, lightly amusing) that wraps everything up.
As a fan of Cohn and Duprat’s tighter, darker previous collaborations I was keenly aware of the passage of screen time and slack pacing here. “Official Competition” feels like an 80 minute spoof bundled in the gauze of a 115 minute film.
Comedy is a close-up medium, but aside from a few moments with Lola’s voluminous hair and freckles, with Félix’s alarm at the contract-violation of touching or endangering “my livelihood, my face (in Spanish with English subtitles),” Cohn and Duprat frame scene after scene in “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” long or medium shots. And suffice it to say, neither of them is Jacques Tati.
That adds to the chilly, remote feeling, that there isn’t enough action, aren’t enough outlandish characters or situations to make this as funny as a “For Your Consideration” or any other film about “film festival films.” In making a movie sending up movies like this, they’ve erred on the side of too-on-the-nose.
There’s all this literal and figurative dead space surrounding a tiny cast that has been and can be funnier than “Official Competition” lets them be.
Rating: R for language and some nudity
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez, Pilar Castro and José Luis Gómez
Credits: Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, scripted by Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat and Andrés Duprat. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:55