Official Competition (2022)

As the Fall Film Festival season spills over into the Year-End Listmaking frenzy and the new year’s hangover Awards Ceremonies, it’s easy to be tricked into believing that movies are Important.  Forget all the jump-scare horrors of October and the action blockbuster bloat of what’s now a six-month summer.  This is the time of year when cinema cures all the world’s ills, from “solving” racial & economic injustice in 180 minutes or less to fortifying millionaire actors’ praise-starved egos with gold-plated statuettes.  And so, it’s the perfect time of year to catch up with the Spanish film industry satire Official Competition, which is exactly as cynical about the absurd ritual of Important Cinema Season as the ritual deserves.  Dissatisfied with merely being grotesquely wealthy, a pharmaceutical CEO decides to purchase cultural clout by funding a high-brow art film.  He employs a temperamental arthouse auteur to complete the task in his name (Penelope Cruz, sporting one of cinema’s all-time greatest wigs).  To make the most of the opportunity, she has to manage the competing egos of her two male stars (Oscar Martinez as a pretentious stage actor & Antonio Banderas as a himbo film star), and the three mismatched artists violently bicker their way into purchasing a Palme d’Or.  Hilarity ensues, with none of the pomp nor dignity of Prestige Filmmaking left intact.

As you can likely tell from the dual presence of Cruz & Banderas, Official Competition borrows a lot of aesthetic surface details from the Almodóvar playbook: ultra-modernist art gallery spaces, video-instillation digi projections, cut-and-paste magazine collages, etc.  It just repurposes those Great Value™ Almodóvar aesthetics for broad goofball schtick instead of subtly complex melodrama.  And it works!  The jokes are constant & consistently funny, always punching up at the absurd self-importance of artsy filmmaker types’ delusion that they can change the world through a millionaire producer’s vanity project.  From the himbo’s Instagram charity sponcon to the theatre snob’s practiced awards rejection speech to the auteur’s failure to master TikTok dance crazes, the movie constantly pokes fun at its three central players for being far less Genius, Important, and Uniquely Talented than they believe themselves to be.  At its core, this is a comedy about a boyish rivalry between the two actors under Cruz’s direction, and her mistaken belief that she’s the sole voice of reason on-set.  They’re all equally ridiculous and all a constant source of verbal & visual punchlines. 

Even though Official Competition is essentially a farce, it can’t help but absorb some of its own arthouse prestige through proximity.  The three main actors all put in great, nuanced performances as broad film-world archetypes, especially Cruz as the exasperated auteur who can’t fully domesticate her collaborators.  The Almodóvar set details afford it a crisp art instillation feel, especially in a lengthy gag involving a loudly mic’d lesbian makeout session.  Its icy humor at the expense of its own industry also goes subzero in the third act, when the vicious on-set rivalries become outright lethal.  It’s a very smart comedy about a very silly industry that thinks very highly of itself, an easy but worthwhile target for ridicule.  It’s around this stretch on the annual film distribution calendar—when the novelty horror titles dry up between Halloween & January dumping season—that I’m desperate for a little novelty & levity in my moviewatching diet.  Official Competition meets me halfway in that respect, finding plenty novelty & levity in Prestige Filmmaking itself.

-Brandon Ledet

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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It’s been fifteen years since the release of the original Zoolander, which seems like an awfully long stretch of time before deciding the world needs a sequel. A lot has happened since 2001, including (perhaps least importantly) a major turnaround on Ben Stiller’s fashion world comedy’s cultural cache. Zoolander suffered mixed-to-negative reviews upon its initial release, but has since grown a strong cult following that seems too large to even consider “cult” at this point. I even remember personally going into the theater prepared to hate Zoolander‘s guts as a grumpy teenager & being wholeheartedly won over as soon as the explosive Wham!-soundtracked gas station gag in the first act. The funny thing about Zoolander‘s fifteen-years-late sequel is that it’s on the exact same trajectory for long-term cultural success as the first film. The reviews are dire. The box office numbers are hardly any better. However, the dirty little secret is that Zoolander 2, while being nowhere near as perfectly inane as its predecessor, is actually a damn fun time at the movies. Nowhere near every joke lands in the film, but it’s smart to flood you with enough impossibly idiotic humor that you’re bound to laugh at something, maybe even more often than you’d expect.

In order to justify its own existence, Zoolander 2 has to undo a lot of the happy ending denouement of the original. Former male models/makeshift political intrigue heavies Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) & Hansel (Owen Wilson) must again start from the bottom. Hansel has been horrifically scarred & is experiencing growing pains with his in-effect wife, an orgy of weirdos. Derek’s own wife has passed away due to his own failures as a businessman & custody of his son has been revoked by the state due to his total lack of parenting skills in areas as basic as “how to make spaghetti soft”. In order to reclaim their estranged familial relationships & earn back their rightful place on top of the fashion world, Hansel & Derek have to repair their irrevocably broken friendship, putting aside the narcissism that plagues them both so deeply. Obviously, the plot doesn’t matter too much in a comedy as aggressively vapid as this, but I do think there’s something oddly sweet about Zoolander 2‘s central bromance that wasn’t nearly as fully realized in the first film. Derek & Hans really do need each other. They’re entirely codependent in their joint efforts to understand a world that doesn’t make sense to their tiny, uncomprehending minds. It’s a fascinating, even touching companionship even if it is an assertively brainless one.

Zoolander 2 does have an Achilles heel, but it’s not exactly the first place you’d expect. The film sidesteps most concerns about being late to the table in terms of following up its original iteration by making the outdated, past-their-prime cultural irrelevance of the its protagonists a major plot point. The redundancy of a second film following the same protagonists as they transition from male modeling to a life in political intrigue is also avoided by adding concerns about familial bonds and, absurdly enough, radical Biblical interpretations & quests for immortality into the mix. Where the film gets a little exasperating is in its never ending list of cameos & bit roles. Even in the film’s trailer swapping an appearance by David Bowie for the much lesser musical being/tabloid fixture Justin Beiber felt like a weak trade-off (although Bieber is actually far from the worst cameo on deck; his time is brief & fairly amusing). The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two. Will Ferrell was a welcome return as the impossibly wicked megalomaniac Mugatu, Penélope Cruz was charming (not to mention breathtakingly gorgeous) as a secret agent for INTERPOL’s fashion division, and current SNL cast member Kyle Mooney proved himself to be a stealth MVP as a double-talking sleazebag hipster piece of shit who’s ironically stuck in the nu metal 00s (an archetype he always nails without fail). These are just a few faces in a sea of many, though, and the nonstop torrent of names like Kristen Wiig, Willie Nelson, Fred Armisen, Katy Perry, and whoever else felt like walking through the film’s perpetually open door did little for Zoolander 2 except to make it feel a little sloppy & out of control.

There were thing I loved about Zoolander 2 & things I easily could’ve done without. The film’s Looney Tunes physics & complete disinterest in stimulating the intellect felt entirely in tune with the original’s sensibility. The vaguely transphobic joke about Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All in the trailer is not at all improved by being expanded in the movie. Even though Hansel & Derek are close-minded imbeciles who believe things like fat = bad person, their treatment of All is an uncomfortable mixed bag at best & mostly just distracts from the film’s better realized gags. Many of the celebrity cameos & bit roles equally feel like a waste of time that could’ve been better step, but Zoolander 2 decisively aims for a quantity over quality M.O. & by the time the film finds its stride far more of its jokes land than fall flat. I spent most of Zoolander 2‘s runtime laughing heartily, which might as well be the sole requirement for a movie this militantly irreverent to succeed as a finished product. It’s not the best comedy in the theater right now (that would be Hail, Caesar!), but it’s also not the worst (*cough* Deadpool *cough*) & I could easily see myself watching/enjoying the film multiple times in the future. If nothing else, that’s a far better experience than I expected based on its early reviews, which is pretty much how this whole ordeal worked out the first time around in 2001.

-Brandon Ledet