If nothing else, Fernando Léon de Aranoa’s latest film Loving Pablo has given us the sight of a corpulent Javier Bardem hustling nude through the jungles of South America, semi-automatic rifle clutched in hand, desiccated buttocks practically flapping in the wind. It’s a bizarre scene, kind of funny and kind of pathetic, and thoroughly memorable. If only Aranoa could conjure another scene, even another image quite as surreal.
Because everything about Pablo Escobar, the paunchy cocaine baron that Bardem effortfully portrays in this adaptation of the memoir Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, was larger than life. Already dramatized everywhere from Netflix’s Narcos to a movie-within-a-movie on Entourage, his story brings him from humble beginnings as the most ruthless kingpin in Colombia through a stint as a publicly elected (well, “publicly elected”) official to his inevitable fall from power.
Aranoa’s film attempts to put a new spin on this colorful tale by telling it through the perspective of that memoir’s author, Escobar’s longtime mistress Virginia Vallejo (Penelope Cruz). But even with the newscaster-turned-accomplice calling the shots, Escobar remains the star of the show.
As with the Lorraine Bracco’s point-of-view move in Goodfellas, the film places a greater focus on the notion of unwilling complicity than most in the gangster genre, but still struggles to produce much strikingly original insight. In adherence with an apparent rule that all crime sagas must begin in medias res, we first join Virginia as Pablo’s empire crumbles and she takes asylum in an undisclosed location with DEA protection. (Represented in the film by a savvy agent courtesy of Peter Sarsgaard.)
Though that one scene all but lays out the entire plot before the movie itself can do so, we tumble back in time nevertheless to the first fateful meeting between the star-crossed lovers at a swanky party on Pablo’s compound. While that sequence is not technically a shot-for-shot remake of Leonardo DiCaprio first laying eyes on Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street, squint your eyes a little and it might as well be.
Pablo proves irresistible to Virginia. Not that he makes it easy on her – besides rocking a gut that could conceal a regulation bowling ball, he makes stomach-churning threats against her life and in what might be an even crueler move, forces her to purchase a diamond necklace for the wife he won’t leave. Even when he intimidates or verbally abuses her, however, she comes back after he does something thoughtful, like brutalizing the ex-husband that won’t sign Virginia’s divorce finalization papers. Until, as the opening scene informs us upfront, she doesn’t.
The film features Virginia in enough scenes that we’re made to believe Aranoa has a sincere interest in her reluctant moral compromise, but she’s only ever a mirror through which we catch the reflection of Pablo. The voice-over narration coming from Cruz (another tick on the Goodfellas homage checklist) does the audience the service of walking them through an intricate culture of drug trafficking, and provides direct insight into her estimation of the rapidly deteriorating situation.
But those thoughts almost always revolve around Pablo and his endless complexities. He turned the Medellín region of Colombia into a war zone where street kids get a cash reward for every slain cop’s badge they turn in to the cartel. At the same time, he funneled a great deal of his blood money back into the local economy and defended the nation’s poorest citizens when no one else would. For a film ostensibly about Virginia, she’s left with little to do besides fret, stray, and return while Pablo lives his life.
At least Cruz and Bardem appear to be having a ball with the 80s milieu and their characters’ outsized personalities. The costuming and hair, from Bardem’s curly black hairpiece to Cruz’s eternally fluffed-up coiffure, add a bit of color to the routine, and Bardem’s fat-neck prosthesis is weirdly transfixing. And the heat really rises when their fiery attitudes mix and threaten to combust; though the script is in English for what Bardem has confirmed were wrangling-a-budget reasons, their spats spark with such passion that a viewer can nearly hear the Spanish behind it.
But Aranoa’s film forces these two diverting performances into regrettably done-to-death beats in a familiar rise-and-fall narrative. Like Escobar himself remaking the coca business in a bold, new and highly lucrative vision, Bardem and Cruz succeed by doing things their unique way. Aranoa, not so much.