Pretentious people are funny. A pretension industry is even funnier. Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s film world comedy Official Selection mines insidery humor from the delusional directors and pompous actors in show business. The casting of Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, two of Spain’s finest stars who have successfully crossed over into Hollywood, are perfectly cast in a film that skewers the business inside and out, but also falls victim to some of the bloat it seeks to satirize.
Imaginine the deft takedown of the art world in Ruben Ostlund’s The Square if filmmaking were the target and you’ve got an idea of Official Competition. The film begins with aging millionaire Humberto Suarez (José Luis Gómez) who, desiring to leave behind some kind of legacy, decides that he wants to finance a movie. But not just any movie, a GREAT movie with the BEST people. And so he hires uber-pretentious, Har’el-haired arthouse filmmaker Lola Cuevas to direct an adaptation of “Rivalry”, an acclaimed novel Suarez spent a ton of money to acquire. Of course, she wants to do it her way, screw being faithful to the source material. To lead the story about two warring brothers, she casts actors who couldn’t be more different. Banderas plays self-centered playboy Félix Rivero, with Oscar Martinez as “serious actor” Ivan Torres.
The film largely takes place in a massive, sterile conference center, where conflicts emerge because of everyone’s rigid personality types. Lola is one of those directors who go to unusual lengths to capture a single moment of “truth”, so she puts the actors through a series of unusual lessons and tests. Her pretensions only serve to stir up the heat between Felix and Ivan as to who is the better actor, and they go to extreme lengths to prove it at the cost of the production.
In one hilarious practice session, Lola forces the guys to act out a grieving moment while a giant rock hovers ominously over their heads, barking at them to use the fear. Later, an angry Felix, fed up that his devil-may-care attitude and mainstream success paint him as an unserious performer, makes up an absolutely horrendous lie that he then convinces the others is true, just to prove he’s the better actor.
This war of professional hubris continues to escalate, but it’s to the credit of writers/directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’ that Official Competition never slips into parody by going too far. There’s considerable restraint being shown, especially by the cast who are superb in playing up aspects of their own personas. Banderas recaptures some of the wild magnetism of his first forays into Hollywood, while Martinez is the stodgy bore obsessed with his own reputation. Cruz is the glue that holds it all together as the manipulative Lola, whose disdain for awards statues, those symbols of supposed excellence, literally grinds the production to a standstill.
At just under two hours there’s a sense the screenplay could’ve been paired down. Hey, it’s okay to have a lot of ammunition in the arsenal, and the film makes good use of most of it. But at the same time, the film does cover the same territory repeatedly and feels as unnecessarily overstuffed as the most egregious art house drama. Then again, it affords us the chance to see Penelope Cruz doing “The Floss” and honestly, it’s worth every minute. Official Competition isn’t profound. It may be biting at the hand that feeds it, but these are gentle nibbles at an industry everyone involved clearly loves enough to make fun of.
Official Competition opens on June 17th.