For interested viewers who attempted the first two seasons of Netflix’s celebrated cartel drama “Narcos” but felt it lacked a crucial touch of telenovela, “Loving Pablo” should do the trick in just over two hours. Long, loud and lurid, with a distinct whiff of week-old quesito colombiano, Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s pulpy Pablo Escobar biopic promises an alternative spin on familiar material by taking the perspective of the drug kingpin’s glamorous journalist lover Virginia Vallejo. Yet she turns out to be as stock a presence as anyone else in this blood-spattered chunk of cartoon history, which reduces her life and Escobar’s alike to bullet points punctuated by bullet holes, strung together by her excessive, over-explanatory narration. The enlivening presence of Spanish cinema’s real-life first couple, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, in the leads gives “Loving Pablo” a clear international selling point, though both are colorfully slumming it.
“Colombians don’t switch on their TVs to see me, but what I’m wearing,” says Vallejo, a once-popular investigative anchorwoman whose career was ultimately brought down by her association with Escobar at the zenith of the Medellin Cartel’s grisly reign. It’s an admission that inadvertently encapsulates the chief appeal of “Loving Pablo” as an exercise in garish true-crime dress-up: From the second Cruz appears on screen in the first of the film’s 1993-set bookends, pristinely spritzed and coiffed and shoulder-padded in a yellow-checked power suit, the project’s camp potential is immediately realized. Leon de Aranoa’s script follows suit, feeding her the lines of a soap-opera empress: “This is the first time I ever had to leave a country because of a man,” she muses wistfully off-camera as she flees to the U.S. under the DEA’s protection, presumably between nonchalant swigs of Cristal.
Leon de Aranoa lifts much of this material from Vallejo’s 2007 memoir “Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar,” a Spanish-language bestseller on which he leans rather too heavily, excerpting entire passages as needless voiceover to self-explanatory scenes. “Pablo introduces me to his associates in the cartel,” she helpfully explains as we see Escobar introducing her to his associates in the cartel, shortly after they meet and are instantly drawn to each other at a glittering party on the Escobar estate in 1981. “He shows me off like a trophy,” she continues, as he shows her off like a trophy. Such prosaic writing is further flattened by frequently stilted translation, as accented English dialogue dominates the bilingual proceedings — a questionable decision given the pic’s primarily Spanish and Latin American commercial appeal, and its somewhat ersatz effect on the stars’ otherwise brash, lively performances.
Vallejo and Escobar’s cash-cushioned affair at the cocaine lord’s high-rolling peak is depicted in largely surface-level terms of material excess and smoldering flirtation, but we’re rarely given any insight into more intimate realities of their relationship. (“If you’re going to cry over a man, better to do it on a private jet than on a bus,” she advises us, and this is about as close as the film gets to her emotional truth.) The obvious natural resource of Cruz and Bardem’s tinderbox chemistry is thus only superficially plundered.
Otherwise, “Loving Pablo” has little genuine interest in a feminine perspective on grimily masculine criminal games. Much of the film requires Vallejo to be an omniscient narrator to chapters of Escobar lore in which she played no direct part. The film’s middle act delves into his ill-fated foray into politics and the state of national emergency that follows his congressional downfall, as the cartel and the government engage in a massacre-level exchange of power plays — all material that we’ve seen detailed more substantially elsewhere, not least in the aforementioned, still-fresh “Narcos.”
A harrowing montage of policemen and adolescents being alternately shot in the head, for example, may bring a stomach-churning degree of reality to proceedings, but doesn’t really mesh with the glossier saga of Vallejo’s growing endangerment, nor the sketchily developed subplot of her long-term courting by DEA agent Shepard (Peter Sarsgaard). The script would have us believe that their eventual collaboration was fueled by an underlying sexual attraction, though nothing in the way it plays out between Cruz and Sarsgaard supports such a notion, with the latter’s papery, by-the-book character giving the actor little scope for inspired riffing.
He’s certainly no match for the menacing brute charisma of an extravagantly latexed, paunch-burdened Bardem, also one of the film’s producers. The star may not give the most nuanced reading of Escobar out there, but for the film’s broad purposes, plays a suitably carnal, corrupt beast to Cruz’s increasingly terrorized, Thierry Mugler-clad beauty. Neither, it has to be said, gives the best performance in the film: That distinction goes to Julieth Restrepo as Escobar’s significantly less diva-tastic wife Victoria, a bastion of quiet, frayed-nerved feeling amid the larger gesticulating around her.
Working in a far less refined, humane register than in his and Bardem’s acclaimed 2002 collaboration “Mondays in the Sun,” Leon de Aranoa’s predominantly functional direction comes most alive in his handling of the film’s big-ticket action sequences: a deafening, panic-inducing helicopter raid on a gone-underground Escobar’s jungle hideout, climaxing in Bardem’s stark-naked flight into the foliage, or a spectacular highway hijacking and airplane cocaine drop that wouldn’t be out of place in Doug Liman’s recent, incidentally Escobar-themed adventure “American Made.” Fast on its feet and cranking up the hot Colombian colors to eleven, Alex Catalán’s cinematography embraces the predominant comic-book spirit of the enterprise. First honors in that department, however, go to Ma Dolores García Galeán and Wanda Morales’s eye-searingly fabulous costumes, which ensure that even at the film’s most fraught interludes, Vallejo never has to run for her life in substandard heels.