In its supposed attempts to poke fun at dry, pretentious festival films, Official Competition tragically ends up becoming one itself.
Official Competition has solid critical buzz, it has a great cast, and it seemed poised to effectively skewer some of the more fascinatingly ridiculous sides of the film industry… but instead, it ends up being a film that, while sound on paper, is made close to unwatchable for its completely lifeless directing and editing. The events of the film kick off when a billionaire entrepreneur impulsively decides to create an iconic movie to make a name for himself. He hires renowned director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) to take the helm, before pretty much disappearing from the film until the end for some reason. Cuevas, in turn, recruits Hollywood heartthrob Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and snobby theater actor Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez). The two actors must then find a way to deal with not only Lola’s strict, bizarre directing style, but the egos of each other and their opposite approaches to acting.
The best thing Official Competition has going for it is its script. While the antics of Lola aren’t as much the crux of the plot as marketing may have you believe, an examination of eccentric and increasingly overly-demanding directing such as hers, as well as how this brings out the diametrically opposed but equally strong egos of her actors, is conceptually strong. And were I to just read how it plays out in Official Competition on the page, I would have even more confidence that it could work with the right direction… but there lies the problem. I couldn’t stand how this film is shot, directed, or edited. Mainly, and I know this may sound like nitpicking, there are too many wide shots. What feels like 75% of this film’s composition are either shots of empty space with the actors far from the camera, or flat, unchanging medium shots with the actors’ emotions still largely obstructed. This drains all the life, expression, and humor from so much of Official Competition, making it feel like you’re watching a lackluster stage play. There are many sequences that read very humorously, but when I’m so scarcely allowed to get a good look at anyone’s expression, when the actors are so often blocked and staged so flatly, and when the shots so often refuse to evolve with the dynamics of a scene, that on-the-page merit all but entirely evaporates.
I don’t grasp either Félix or Iván’s performances for the film they’re working on, because they’re just as monotonous and incessantly lifeless as the performances of Banderas and Martínez themselves. Aside from their dialogue, there is zero difference between how these actors conduct themselves in their body language, inflections, etc. This makes their supposed differences – with Iván being highly pretentious and looking down on the common viewer and Félix content as the crowd-pleaser simply getting paid – ring very hollow. I feel nothing for their different ideologies because I’m merely understanding who they are and what they stand for, rather than feeling it. Their rivalry escalates in a flaccid manner for similar reasons, leading to a payoff that should be shocking on paper but is again done dirty by the tension-free directing.
Penélope Cruz manages to salvage a decent performance out of her material, but even she seems to suffer from the black hole of charisma that is this film’s direction. Everyone talks in the same soft, monotone manner from beginning to end, which doesn’t help the tedium of constantly being shown dull, empty spaces scene by scene by scene with only a handful of visual intrigue here and there. Maybe all of this was to satirize the pretention of such filmmaking, such as stuffy performances or pointlessly artsy camerawork? I don’t know, but if that was the intention, the joke really doesn’t land. Instead, it makes Official Competition one of the most aggressively boring films I’ve seen in a long time.
I think – again, it’s hard to tell because of the flat execution – that part of the point of this story is that, through her overbearing directing style, Lola has inadvertently turned her actors into the bitter, rivalrous characters they’re portraying, which is what causes things to slowly spiral out of control. This has some promise, as we’ve frequently heard stories of actors who rely too much on method stunts instead of knowing how to… you know, act, and directors who apparently can’t do their own jobs without putting their cast and crew through needlessly ridiculous and occasionally cruel tactics. Seeing that play out to the point of self-implosion could be a lot of fun, and one of the very few enjoyable moments is when the production’s life does end up mimicking the art it’s portraying in the end. But that’s somewhat deflated with the film’s final few seconds that are open-ended in an unsatisfactory way. Plus, the eccentricities of Lola rarely go beyond your typical overbearing filmmaking. For the most part, nothing about her really sticks out as comically excessive. She’s just overly demanding and little more… except for one scene where she really goes overboard, but that just very feels out-of-place in contrast to what she does in the rest of the film.
There are really good ideas in Official Competition, and from a writing standpoint, I think those ideas are generally well-realized. But their transference from script to screen is where everything completely falls apart. I’m not kidding when I say that I needed to take a break halfway through my viewing because of how relentlessly bored I was getting. I kept waiting for something to really click into place that justifies telling this story in this manner, something that would make sitting through the film worth it. But by the end, the theoretically solid payoff is far too little, far too late. Official Competition seems to be generally well-received by other critics who have seen it, so maybe you have a better shot of enjoying it than I’m making it seem. But if you were to ask me whether or not I personally can recommend it, I would have to answer with a resounding “no.”
Official Competition will be released in US theaters on June 17, 2022, and on VOD on August 2. The film premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival on June 14: Read our recommendations of films to watch at Tribeca 2022!