Every power player in the motion picture business has an angle. Sometimes their angles line up and a great movie gets made. Other times, their angles are different. That's where trouble comes in. Official Competition takes a humorous look at that idea. Made in Spain – far away from the Hollywood studio system – the picture proves that the same issues arise no matter where creative people band together for cinematic purposes.
Humberto Suarez (José Luis Gómez) is a billionaire businessman. At his advanced age, he comes to the realization that he won't leave much of a legacy behind. Yes, he's run a successful business, but in the public's eye, he's just another rich guy. To that end, he wants to do something that will leave more of a cultural mark, something that will make the world remember him positively. The answer, Humberto decides, is to finance a film. Not just any film, a great film.
To that end, he buys the rights to a Nobel prize-winning novel, then hires Lola Cuevas (Penelope Cruz), one of the most acclaimed directors around, to adapt it for the screen. Humberto insists that she hire only the best actors to star. Things start to go sideways from there. Lola brings in Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez), a very serious thespian who values the benefits of rehearsal, and Felix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), a beloved movie star who prefers to come on set and largely wing it. The styles of the actors clash, and Lola puts them through a series of preposterous exercises designed to prepare them for the artistic journey she has in mind. For example, when she thinks they aren't generating the right kind of intensity during rehearsals, she makes them sit underneath a massive boulder that's being suspended by a crane.
Official Competition is a study of bad behavior. Lola, fancying herself an important artist, believes she has a right to torture her actors in the name of achieving authenticity. Ivan is so rigid in his “process” that he can only effectively collaborate with people who share it. Felix's commercial success has caused him to have a chip on his shoulder, so he feels a perpetual need to prove himself. That self-centered view causes him to be dismissive of what others need. This trio of dysfunctional traits – pretention, rigidity, narcissism – combines in very funny ways as these people attempt to get on the same page to make their movie.
The story here could have felt shallow were it not for the perfectly calibrated performances. Penelope Cruz, hot on the heels of a searing Oscar-nominated turn in Parallel Mothers, is a delight as the wild-haired director who fancies herself a visionary. The actress gets Lola's sense of ego just right, bringing to mind filmmakers from Oliver Stone to David O. Russell who have infamously tormented their stars in the name of art. Oscar Martinez captures Ivan's capital-A acting approach, as well as the nagging insecurity he has from not achieving the same popularity as his co-star, whom he views as less talented. Antonio Banderas once again demonstrates his comedic skill, turning Felix into an actor who's bought into his own hype a little too much. Watching these three clash offers plenty of wicked fun.
At nearly two hours, Official Competition is a little too long, and a major third-act event feels contrived. Mostly, though, the movie is a terrific character study of ego-driven individuals trying to figure out how to play in the same sandbox. Directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat are shrewd enough to make their story universal. It may be about filmmaking, but anyone who's ever butted heads with a boss or coworker will be able to identify. And the examination of behind-the-scenes tension is likely to make you appreciate the next great movie you see even more. It truly is a miracle when one comes together.
out of four
Official Competition is rated R for language and some nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.