Should someone ever construct a Film Hair Hall of Fame, or a museum dedicated to the greatest cinematic coifs to ever grace screens, we’d like to submit for inclusion Penélope Cruz’s ‘do from Official Competition. An untamable mane of red curls cascading out from her head and spilling over her shoulders, it is almost its own character; the closest way to describe it would be to imagine Medusa as played by Lucille Ball. It’s an alpha-follicular power move, a feral flex of frizz, and one that immediately tells you her character — a filmmaker for whom eccentric seems too mild an adjective — is someone who may be a visionary and is definitely mondo wackadoodle. The fact that the Spanish actor never stoops to playing second fiddle to this impressive poodle-puff-gone-awry is a feat unto itself. Instead, she pitches her portrait of an artist as pretentious loon to a level that meets this wild, crazy hairstyle on its own playing field. Lesser performer would have been eclipsed by such an all-encompassing bouffant. Cruz turns it into a duet partner.
The star and her comically curly crown aren’t the only highlights of this sharp showbiz satire, just the most outrageous ones. Her internationally renowned filmmaker Lola Cuevas, who may or may not be based on anyone in particular, has been hired to adapt Rivalry, a prizewinning novel about two brothers. Never mind that the project is just a rich man’s folly, something that an 80-year-old millionaire decided to do in a bout of post-birthday ennui. (It was either produce a prestigious hit movie or get a bridge named after him.) She will make this film her own way, i.e. the only way she knows how, a.k.a. chaos and creative anarchy. If any of the actual book happens to make it into what happens in front of her cameras, that’s a bonus. Playing these two warring siblings are: Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), a theater legend prone to pontificating about his process and the integrity of the art form; and Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), a gentleman known for starring in gajillion-dollar-grossing blockbusters. A kooky auteur, a self-serious actor, a vapid movie star — what could go right?
Piss-takes on the sausage-making process of film productions are nearly as old as film productions themselves, and you could argue that the Argentine directorial duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn (The Man Next Door) are merely updating this old chestnut for the 21st century, even if they’re mostly sticking to the pre-shoot rehearsal process. There are the clashes of titanic egos and obnoxious celebrity behavior, macrobiotic diets and parades of twentysomething model girlfriends, pompous warm-up exercises and performative IG posts about social causes (in this case, saving the nearly extinct pink dolphins). Rivero keeps some of his many festival prizes and statuettes in his house in St. Tropez, and others in his place in Los Angeles. Torres is the type of thespian who practices his award rejection speeches in the mirror. As for Cuevas, she’s not above asking for endless readings of the line “Good evening,” or using her powers of seduction and/or appetite for destruction to keep her cast on their toes.
There’s also a dialectic that Duprat and Cohn are embedding in the bickering and eye-rolling between their two actor archetypes about the nature of performing itself: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of classical training and spilling your guts for a part, or if hitting your marks and merely saying others’ words as authoritatively as possible gets the same end result. They aren’t that interested in an answer, however, so much as using that argument to fuel an unofficial one-upmanship competition between dueling caricatures. That both Martínez and Banderas make four-course meals out of these roles helps turn this into a graceful backstage farce, even when the last act gently creeps from slightly dark to pitch black. It also helps that the directors themselves have a genuinely great eye for composition, whether it’s in the name of punctuating a joke or simply mining the modern-architecture space where Lola and her male leads hash things out. Anyone can mock fake filmmakers. It takes real ones to throw in a shot of a jet airliner arcing across the sky as reflected in a glass conference table and cause you to stop giggling just long enough to gasp. The ratio of sublime to ridiculousness is a straight 50/50.
But this is really one person’s showcase, and whether by design or simply default, Cruz slips Official Competition into her slim-suited pockets and walks away with the film. We take it for granted that she can go full Maria Falconetti for the camera on a regular basis, and think of her as the person you call when you need put-upon mothers or suffering heroines or human crying jags. She is also an absolutely amazing comic actor, however, which this goofy exercise in creatives-behaving-badly is happy to take advantage of. Blessed with dozens of cat-eye glasses, some over-the-top fashion choices and, yes, that peerless tornado of a hairdo, Cruz manages to fold every cliché you can think of regarding unimpeachable, crackpot cinéastes into her Lola and somehow makes it all seem hilariously unique. Something as simple as her gum-chewing director silently flossing in her room still cracks you up. I can’t say if it’s the best screen performance of the year, though it’s definitely my favorite. The movie would hit every bullseye it needed to even without her near-surgical deconstruction of the narcissistic monsters who scream “action” and “cut.” With Cruz’s take on artistic “genius,” however, this satire officially becomes a work of actual genius.