‘Official Competition’ a decent sendup of actorly vanity

Moviemakers love movies about movies because it reassures the public that they don’t mind taking the piss out of themselves. Sherlock Jr., Sunset Boulevard, Day For Night, Living in Oblivion — these films revel in the veniality of stars and the arrogance of directors. Official Competition would like to join their company. It doesn’t. Starring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, this Russian doll starts solid but turns predictable. Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, however, keep the yuks coming in this crisply edited project.

Beware the motives of plutocrats. Approached by Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) about adapting the novel Rivaliras (Rivalries) after he has bought the rights instead of building a bridge in his name or something, Lola Cuevas (Cruz) casts two acclaimed actors. Not that the director of The INverted Room and Haze doesn’t come with baggage (“She’s kind of strange,” we learn). These are difficult roles — Rivaliras examines the relations between two brothers, one of whom does time after he accidentally killed their parents in an accident — but potentially lucrative and, more importantly, Oscar worthy. The more internationally recognized of the pair, Félix Rivero (Banderas) comes into the production with five Goyas and a couple Golden Globe nods, facts which drive co-star Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) mad. “I have thirteen international awards — they must count for something!” he remarks.

Learning to endure the other’s vanities is the subject of Official Competition, and for about forty minutes it’s fine, thanks to the actors. When film fans over drinks mourn the collapse of a culture that produced Cary Grant, they — we — forget about a marvelous cut-up who dwells among us. Few contemporary actors have relished playing the goofball as thoroughly as Banderas; to play a goofball well is to relinquish the self-consciousness that his Félix can’t. Whether thinking about his abuela when he needs to cry in character or having a contract on record preventing anyone from touching his face, Félix regards himself as Thespis with an Andalusian accent. Speaking of accents, Martínez, the less confident of the duo, acquits himself well, a blowhard who hasn’t shed his Argentine accent despite twenty years in the biz. And Cruz knows how to shade humorless characters like Lula such that every self-important utterance is a laugh line.

As if aware of how tissue-thin their premise, Duprat and Cohn (El Ciudadano Ilustre) use sight gags to decent effect: a serious conversation between Lola and her actors beneath the threat of a fake hanging boulder; the High Eighties excess of Lola’s red hair, a frizzy wonder. Other scenes dribble on, like Lola schooling Félix and Ivan on the proper way to make out with an actress by making out with the actress herself. Still, here’s another amusing film at least thirty minutes too long. I suspect Lola may have agreed.

GRADE: B

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