Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Official Competition. There is so much to love about the mirthful yet measured new satire, Official Competition, a film that tells the story of the messy process of making a film. Before you roll your eyes at this premise, this is not a work that has a shred of pretension in its approach. Rather, it is a wickedly funny creation that shows an endless willingness to poke fun at itself. Integral to this is the strength and earnestness of its performers, the terrific trio of Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderasand Oscar Martínez. They play characters tasked with making a movie for a wealthy millionaire who hopes it will be his legacy. Cruz plays the acclaimed director Lola Cuevas, who will be overseeing the two men and primary actors in the film. Banderas is the suave superstar Félix Rivero while Martínez is the more grounded and humble Iván Torres. All three have vastly different and often conflicting visions of what the film should be.
The majority of the story plays out with the trio doing increasingly absurd acting exercises and rehearsals in an isolated building. Ostensibly, this is all about getting them prepared for the actual shoot of the film though you strain to see some kind of method to the madness. You can not help smiling at the silliness of it all as we see Cruz put her actors through more and more strange sequences. She starts out by rather fortuitously describing the characters as cherries that are bound together, falling to the ground when she drops them. She will then have them act out a scene with what they think is a giant boulder dangling precariously over their head. Later, she wraps them together in plastic and destroys Félix’s awards while he screams to no avail. Cruz plays the character with a cutting sense of charm as she finds more and more creative ways to essentially torture the two men. Even though we have no idea if this has any artistic merit that will help the film, the performances make it uproariously funny.
One of the best scenes comes early in the film, where Iván reads the line “good evening” multiple times at Lola’s urging, each basically indistinguishable from the last. As she outlines all the supposedly different meanings such a phrase can carry, it makes it hilarious when he delivers the line again with only the slightest more emphasis, and it is suddenly satisfactory. This is all part of the film’s dry humor, all of which is sharply written and bursting with a sense of snark. However, it is the way that all of this is delivered that really brings it home. Cruz is both serious and sincere in her deadpan delivery, making each scene consistently chuckle-worthy. In the aforementioned scene where she destroys all the awards, something she calls “an exercise on the ego” meant to “transform” them, she plays the character with a sense of grace and glee. Both Banderas and Martínez are similarly committed, making their portrayal of actors caught up in acting feel note-perfect. Their work ensures the ridiculousness of making art is deeply felt, pushing the characters further and further into creative chaos. It is their presence that ensures the characters being skewered feel real.
There was some concern raised when the film first premiered that it would be too inside baseball in its humor. After all, most movie-going audiences aren’t particularly familiar with the process of making films and the quirks that make the jokes land as well as they do. However, we all know people who have an outsized ego, and we can all recognize when they are captured on screen. Think of the line from Tropic Thunder: “I’m a dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude,” crossed with a more serious sensibility, and you’ve got some idea of what is playing out here. Their command of the characters makes it a playful deconstruction of art, cinema, celebrity, creativity, popularity, and pride that is as darkly funny as it is incisive. More than just winking at the audience, it is all very boisterous and silly before shifting into a fittingly bleak conclusion that lays bare the brutality of being an artist. This is because, right before shooting on the actual filming is supposed to begin, Félix attacks Iván. He does so in a fit of rage by pushing him off a roof after he heard the disparaging comments the man who was supposed to be his co-star was making about how amateurish he is.
It never stops being darkly funny even as we see how the dishonest Félix’s tendency to be a diva took a suddenly dangerous turn. It is the performance that really sells his transformation, something Lola had been pushing for though couldn’t anticipate where it would go. It shows just how cruel people can be when they let competition take over the creative process. The fact that Félix is rewarded for this with the ability to play both roles, get effusive praise at a festival, and still pretend he is a good guy, shows the film’s prevailing cynicism about what it takes to get ahead.
Both Cruz and Banderas continue to be witty as all this plays out though in a manner that is not showy to the point of straining credulity. They instill everything with authentic hilarity that never lets up. It leaves you trying to parse through how much of what they’re doing and saying is itself another layer of performance within the performance. This reaches a breaking point in the killer final act that takes them to a bizarre festival press conference where they have fallen so deep into their own egos that you can not tell if they’re even them anymore. It is through their silly yet serious performances that we are left in stitches. Even as we feel sick at its sensational send-up of the sinister world of film, the manner in which it shakes us up is precisely the point. It shows how strong comedic acting is essential to creating a work that cuts deep, ensuring it is both uncompromising and cathartic.