Five years ago, Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s “The Distinguished Citizen” premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It was one of the sharpest and funniest comedy-dramas of the year, and its star, Oscar Martinez, won the Festival’s acting prize, the Cuppa Volpi. But it didn’t get much of a release in English-speaking countries. (Track it down now, folks.) The follow-up from the Argentinian directing team, “Official Competition” is more likely to be seen by audiences around the world. Martinez has one of the lead roles again, but this time he is acting opposite two of Spain’s — and the world’s — most glamorous superstars, Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas.
Astoundingly, despite being Almodóvar regulars, Cruz and Banderas have never done any substantial acting together. They had a brief joint scene in Almodóvar’s “I’m So Excited,” and in “Pain and Glory,” Cruz played the mother of Banderas’ character in his boyhood flashbacks. This is the first time they have shared top billing.
Cruz, beneath an immense mass of bright red curls, plays Lola Cuevas, an arthouse director known as much for her eccentric methods as for such award-winning films as “The Inverted Rain.” Banderas plays Félix Rivero, an actor and sex symbol who has won his share of trophies, too, but is happy to sign up for Hollywood dreck if the money is right. (Whether or not Banderas had to do much research is open to question.) Martinez plays another actor, Iván Torres, a grey-bearded Kevin Kline-lookalike who is considered to be one of the theater’s greatest maestros, not least by himself. These three are thrown together on the whim of a pharmaceuticals tycoon (José Luis Goméz), who has a late-life crisis after his 80th birthday party. He doesn’t want to be known for his wealth alone, he tells his assistant. He wants to leave behind something significant. A bridge with his name on it, perhaps? Or how about “una pelicula”? He’ll buy the rights to a Nobel-winning novel, without bothering to read it, of course, and then finance a prestigious film. Well, it beats building a phallic rocket to blast yourself into space.
Most of “Official Competition” is set a few months later when Lola, Iván, and Félix hold meetings and rehearsals in a vast concrete-and-glass edifice built as the headquarters of the tycoon’s nonexistent charitable foundation. Things are difficult from the moment they try to squeeze their egos into one room. Lola is so demanding that she asks Iván to repeat his first line, “Good evening,” several times before he can proceed to his second. She instructs Félix to be “resigned, disillusioned, and distressed” all at once. And then there’s the friction between the two leading men, the stuffy artist who claims to loathe the trappings of success but is tempted to have his teeth whitened, and the blockheaded movie star who would rather be in a sports car with one of his much younger girlfriends, but who may be a decent actor after all. The tragic drama they are planning is called “Rivals,” and it’s about two brothers. But it doesn’t take long for the fraternal jostling in the script to be reflected by the men themselves, whose conflict gives the title “Official Competition” another layer of meaning.
If that all seems lacking in comic subtlety, that’s because it is. The actors are subtle — Cruz and Banderas can be hilarious with a narrowed eye or a puzzled frown — but the screenplay, co-written by the directors with Andrés Duprat, is nowhere near as sophisticated as “The Distinguished Citizen.” With no more than a wisp of connective plot, “Official Competition” is essentially a series of light sketches that poke warm-hearted fun at celebrity pretensions and insecurities. Most of these sketches are amusing, some are ingenious (without giving anything away, one involves a crane and a boulder), but they’re nearly all too gentle and predictable to have much of a satirical impact. The caricatured characters have perfect costumes and makeup — Cruz looks like the cover of a disco album — but they don’t get any more complex as the film goes on, despite the sympathetic glimpses into their home lives. Oh, and the octogenarian financier is largely forgotten.
Another niggling issue is that the trio’s misbehavior in rehearsals is sometimes so cruel as to come across as abusive. The fact that Lola is a woman, and her victims are male, does make a difference, but now that we are less forgiving of directors who are horrible to their cast members in the name of art, some of her wacky schemes don’t seem quite as side-splitting as they might have a couple of years ago.
“Official Competition,” like Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration,” exemplifies the curious truth that people with decades of experience in the film industry don’t always make the most penetrating film-industry satires. It still deserves to bring Duprat and Mariano Cohn to a wider audience, mind you. Seeing Cruz and Banderas show off their comedic chops is definitely a pleasure, and the farcical final scenes will leave viewers on a high. But this film won’t win many competitions, official or otherwise.
“Official Competition” world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.