Thursday, June 30, 2022

Official Competition

I mention something about how I was expecting a somewhat more mainstream, more broadly comic movie and as such kind of had a review framing in mind as I was settling in: That Hollywood doesn't really make this sort of movie as much as they used to, or that it skips theaters and goes to streamers where they become invisible. By "this sort of movie", I mean comedies or dramas with parts where movie stars can make use of their charm and personae to draw people in and give them what they want. Stuff that's well-produced but not gaudily elaborate. You can look at a poster with Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas and a tagline that gives you an idea of the story and say, yeah, that looks like a good $12 evening out.

Now, it's not quite that movie; it's a bit more art-house inside-baseball than that. It's nevertheless still kind of interesting that of the trailers that ran before it, two were for documentaries; one was for Three Thousand Years of Longing, a high-concept fantasy; one was for Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, which looks accessible enough but is kind of a niche genre movie at this point; and the last was The Forgiven, which has a couple of stars in Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain but looks pretty intense for an evening out.

And don't forget - these are the trailers for movies that will probably play at Boston Common and the Kendall, but are coin-flips to make it to other multiplexes, except for the big George Miller genie movie.

Competencia oficial (Official Competition)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 June 2022 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Not having seen a trailer but just stills and posters, I expected Official Competition to be something a little more screwball-y, and for as much as one should try to review the movie you get rather than the one you wanted to see, I still kind of feel like this might have done well as a broader or darker comedy. It feels like the filmmakers want to spoof the art house, but only intermittently find the sweet spot where their targets feel as real as they are deserving.

One can see how their knives feel sharp even as their targets are a mess early on, when the audience is introduced to Don Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), the pharma billionaire with an eye to leaving a legacy who winds up being a bit of a dullard as he splashes out money for the rights to a Nobel Prize-winning novel, to be directed by auteur Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), who wants to cast actors' actor Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) and international star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas). They've found this type that is worth skewering, and Gómez is making him funny but not entirely a villain, and have almost no idea what to do with him afterward.

After that, the film mostly follows the rehearsals of Lola's adaptation of Rivals, and there's a sort of fun vibe where Banderas's Félix often plays the straight man compared to the eccentric artistes played by Cruz and Martinez despite being a movie star. Directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (with co-writer Andrés Duprat) run through a bunch of increasingly-absurd set-ups as Lola's experimentation collides with Iván's desire for Method-like immersion and Félix wanting to just sort of show up and do a job he takes pride in doing well without a lot of introspective fuss. It almost becomes a sketch show of sorts, repeating this fertile setup a fair amount and having several of them hit but maybe not building a movie out of it; a lot of these gags could be reshuffled in any order without it really hurting the film. The ending feels like it should be much squirmier, like the filmmakers have leveled up to something more satirical or the events should have shaken the characters, but instead it stretches out a while, looking for a stopping point.

It mostly works, though. On the one hand, that cast is pretty terrific: Cruz seems to have a great time playing the broad, screwy character here - there's probably not that much Almodovar to Lola beyond the messy mop of hair on her head, although she certainly brings out that type of art-house auteur. Martinez makes a sort of stock character - the pretentious elitist who looks down his nose at things people actually like even as he revels in his lack of material wealth - and makes him feel like a real guy that one can actually see existing as more than the butt of a joke. And while Banderas is beginning to show a little more age than the persona that this plays off, he delivers expressive reactions to the madness he's part of without mugging and blends laid-back and fussy well.

There are times when perhaps the filmmakers would have been better off playing something straight rather than going for a clever shot to be in a better position to poke fun at excessive artsiness. There's a shot toward the middle where the directors and cinematographer Arnau Valis Colomer position Banderas and Martinez in a room with multiple mirrors so that even though they're technically facing each other, the audience concentrates on reflections that are talking past each other, and another where a massive close-up is set up so that one can see both Félix's face and body language no matter what size screen people are watching on. The creativity and execution is impressive, but it's showy enough that the movie becomes the thing that it's mocking.

Much of the movie is like this, where even an on-target joke would be more impressive if it was clearer whether the thing was being skewered from inside or outside. It works more often than not, but just well enough that one could see how it could have been sharper.

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