The phenomenon of actors playing funhouse-mirror versions of themselves has been turbocharged over the past 30 years – from Being John Malkovich to This is the End, via TV comedies such as The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Trip. Johnny-come-latelys, the lot of them: the practice goes back at least as far as 1964, with Billy Wilder’s glorious Kiss Me, Stupid, which starred Dean Martin (born Dino Crocetti) as a womanising crooner named… Dino.
Now it’s the turn of Antonio Banderas to make merry with his persona. In Official Competition, a sharp-clawed comedy from the Argentine film-making duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, he is Félix Rivero, a movie star with a lucrative US career. When he is cast in a prestigious literary adaptation opposite the highfalutin Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), commerce meets art. Iván is all about rehearsal and immersion; Félix, who reaches for the menthol stick when tears are required, wonders why they can’t just get on with it.
The director who has brought them together to play warring siblings, and to exploit their off-screen tension, is Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), the nutty maverick auteur behind “The Inverted Rain” (a perfect spoof arthouse title). With a wicked glint in her eye, Lola forces them to rehearse with a giant boulder suspended above them on a crane (“Use it, use it!”), and makes Iván go over the same piece of dialogue repeatedly until he invests it with the necessary layers of conflicting emotion. The line is: “Good evening.”
[See also: Meghan Markle’s Archetypes podcast review]
Iván has nothing but disdain for actors who defect to Hollywood. “I don’t want to be the Latino who puts a little bit of colour into entertainment for those numbskulls!” he huffs. Hearing this, we can’t help but scroll through Banderas’s English-language credits – the Zorro films, the Shrek series and its Puss in Boots spin-offs – and marvel at what a good sport he is.
There is also a scene in which Félix parades armfuls of awards, some of which (Goyas, Golden Globes) Banderas really has won or been nominated for. Iván claims not to care about such trifles, though privately he rehearses a speech, brandishing a kettle in place of a trophy, in which he scorns the idea of artistic competition. (He even makes an adorable little cheering sound at the end, to suggest an off-screen audience awestruck by his integrity.) Like Banderas, Martínez is spoofing his public image: he is a highly regarded theatre actor in his native Argentina – and not short of silverware himself. (His last film with Duprat and Cohn, The Distinguished Gentleman, won him the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.)
The initial joke of Official Competition is that this whole film-making endeavour has been conceived simply to burnish the reputation of a pharmaceuticals billionaire, Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), who can’t decide whether to build a bridge to ensure his immortality or finance a movie. The eventual – and far superior – gag is that Lola’s apparently cuckoo methods start to bear fruit: both men become more limber under her tutelage. The visual humour as she puts them through their paces is heightened by the austere setting of the Suárez foundation. Its pristine, soulless spaces (glass-walled rooms, stone forecourts cleanly delineated by knife-like shadows) suggest both opulence and spiritual emptiness.
Reality makes itself felt only fleetingly: once in a brief shot of a homeless person outside a burger bar, and again in the reflection of a plane crossing the sky overhead, which recalls the plane mounted above Lola’s bed in a nosediving position. Christ is crucified on it, arms spread out across its wings – a gaudy pop-art homage to the statue of Christ the Redeemer dangling from a helicopter at the start of La Dolce Vita.
Official Competition appears at first to be a standard movie-business takedown à la The Player, but it has far more faith in the art form than that. Among its tastiest pleasures is the chance to see Cruz and Banderas sparking together on screen at last; they’ve both benefited extensively from the patronage of Pedro Almodóvar, yet have coincided only briefly in two of his films, I’m So Excited! and Pain and Glory. Now they can properly let their hair down, literally so in the case of Cruz, dragging on cheroots and tossing around her untamed copper torrent of Louis XIV curls.
“Official Competition” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars