Official Competition Review: Penélope Cruz And Antonio Banderas Play The Fools In An Absurdist Arthouse Satire [Tribeca]

A director and a group of actors, strangers to each other, get together for an intensely personal and intimate table read rehearsal. The actors, at first frustrated by the director's unusual rehearsal techniques, slowly learn more about themselves and each other through the process. Somewhere down the line, a fatal accident derails the entire performance.

The plot sounds eerily similar to Ryusuke Hamaguchi's exquisite "Drive My Car," which made for a mesmerizing tribute to the healing power of art, but "Official Competition," a darkly comic skewering of the arthouse movie scene, instead strips away the sheen of prestige to argue, "Hey, maybe art isn't all that." In fact, maybe the pretense of art makes fools of us all — most of all, the actors and artists behind it. Unintentional or not, "Official Competition" plays out like a sharp, cynical antithesis to "Drive My Car," a depiction of how easily art can be warped to better serve man's ego.

Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat direct "Official Competition, which stars Penélope Cruz as an eccentric auteur, and Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez as the leading men of what they all believe will be her next cinematic masterpiece. But the film's integrity is tainted from the start: the project was conceived out of a billionaire entrepreneur's late-life crisis.

All the world's a stage, all our actors are fools

After pharmaceutical businessman Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) is suddenly seized by the idea of entering the movie business, he shells out millions for the rights of a popular book and hires what he hears is the best of the best to adapt it: Cannes mainstay Lola Cuevas (Cruz). Asking Lola that she only cast "the best" for her film, Humberto is confused by her elaborate arguments for the innately tense casting of international heartthrob Félix Rivero (Banderas) opposite acclaimed theatre veteran Iván Torres (Martinez) as two brothers at each other's throats, only replying with a simple, "Well, as long as they're the best."

"Best" is obviously brought into question, as is Lola's rehearsal process, which can only be described as ... unconventional. Felix and Iván warily meet for the first time at a cavernous rehearsal space, where Lola turns a basic table-read into a series of increasingly erratic acting exercises — making Felix and Iván perform a line reading over and over until she's satisfied, hanging a giant boulder over Felix and Iván's heads as they rehearse a courthouse scene to make them feel the "real pressure," tying Felix and Iván together as she throws their various awards into a scrap metal shredder, and, in one of the film's most awkwardly funny scenes, setting up dozens of microphones in front of them as they rehearse a love-making scene with the film's female lead Diana (Irene Escolar, spectacularly blank-faced as the film's equivalent to casting a TikTok star in an arthouse movie).

Felix and Iván take all of Lola's demands in stride, believing that they're making a masterpiece. But these techniques, rather than stripping them of their ego and revealing "the truth" as Lola keeps harping on, only serve to bring out the worst in them. Felix is a shallow diva whose international career (often playing Spanish-accented villains in Hollywood films) and multiple children by multiple women — a characterization that feels like a winking reflection of Banderas' own career, merged with a Hugh Grant/Tom Cruise type — has only robbed him of his ability to be self-reflective in any way. Meanwhile, Iván is almost too self-reflective, an acting teacher and "maestro" of theatre, as Felix mockingly calls him, whose belief in the purity of the acting process has turned him into a snob who believes every actor who sold out to Hollywood is beneath him. Lola flits around them, alternately a friend, a fairy godmother, an acting coach, and an eccentric artist whose own relationship to the art she's making is questionable too — clearly not altogether there, but clearly believing she's making something great too.

Ready for their close-ups

Banderas and Martinez are fantastic as Felix and Iván, respectively, toeing the line between cartoonish satire and sympathetic realism. Though they never really go beyond their archetypes of hotshot diva and pretentious snob, Banderas and Martinez will offer fleeting glimpses of vulnerabilities in their characters, often fooling Lola — and the audience — into thinking that we've broken through to see their true selves. But it's often just an act, and those outer shells are peeled back to just reveal more ego. It's actually quite a difficult balance to pull off, and both do so well — though Banderas adds a hilariously unhinged quality to his performance, which makes Felix one of his most fun recent performances to watch.

But Cruz is the film's MVP as Lola, kookier than she's ever been, and playing well into the character's question mark of a persona — is she a true auteur or a hack? You never really find out, but watching Lola become increasingly disillusioned with the whole project makes her the closest we get to a relatable character in this whole heightened satire.

With Cruz, Banderas, and Martinez's performances at the center, "Official Competition" forms an absurd, darkly funny, if incomplete, portrait of ego in the age of buzzword-centric arthouse filmmaking. That we never see the finished film, just this nine-day rehearsal process before cutting to the film's press conference in competition at Cannes, hammers in the film's cynical view of the making of arthouse movies: beneath all the pretense of poignancy, the driving force of movies will always be ego.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10