Film Review: Loving Pablo

Even Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz can’t enliven this drug lord’s love story.
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Loving Pablo is the story of a Colombian TV journalist’s affair with—and eventual flight from—cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. But despite its title, it fails to do two crucial things: It fails to really show us Pablo. And it can’t explain why anyone would love him.

The story begins with Escobar—rapidly becoming one of the world’s wealthiest men, but still craving respect—flying down politicians, models and celebrities to his country estate, where imported African wildlife wander in and out of the jungle and sneering thugs with automatic weapons lounge against every wall.

Amazingly, one of the guests, TV journalist and talk-show host Virginia Vallejo, doesn’t immediately find Escobar’s sudden riches (or all those armed flunkies) the least bit suspicious. But after he shows her some housing he’s putting up for the poor, she falls for him hard—and begins an affair even though she knows he’s married, even after she learns he’s a vicious drug dealer.

And the one question the film can’t answer is: Why?

It’s not that Escobar is particularly charismatic. Although the real cartel king had a certain roguish charisma in his youth, here Javier Bardem goes for the grunge, playing him as an often drunken lout, with a Raging Bull gut hanging over his pants and only the most perfunctory interest in rough, up-against-the-wall sex.

And while Escobar is certainly extraordinarily rich, Vallejo—played by Penélope Cruz—is a celebrity in her own right, swanning around in Thierry Mugler and regularly running a gauntlet of restaurant well-wishers just to get to her table. So why on Earth does she want to spend time with him at all? Yes, he stuffs money in her purse, but she’s already wealthy. And his idea of a thoughtful gift—a gun, to ward off assassins—isn’t exactly a turn-on. Why is she attracted to him?

For that matter, why are we watching? Because the movie begins with Escobar already an established drug lord, there’s not even the suspense of watching him slowly build his empire. Nor is the story of its eventual collapse particularly well dramatized.

There are some clips of Ronald Reagan talking about a war on drugs, and a few bland scenes with Peter Sarsgaard as a DEA agent. But none of the American material convinces, with the details feeling thinly sourced, or fake. (Particularly risible: a scene of Vallego, in a supposedly luxe Manhattan jewelry store, introduced with the dramatic title “New York—Seventh Avenue.”)

It’s a shame because director Fernando Leon de Aranóa’s last feature, 2015’s A Perfect Day, was a nicely observed, sardonic look at the ethical challenges faced by aid workers in a chaotic conflict zone. An exploration of the failed-state traumas of Colombia—where drug dealers were politicians, and politicians were crooks—would seem to the sort of sort of rich, morally complex material he’d handle effortlessly.

There are a few moments when things jolt to life—mostly horrible, violent moments. One man is shot down along with his young son. Two others are chainsawed into spare parts. And—in the most appalling scene of all—a frightened German Shepherd is tied to a man’s back, and then beaten into hysteria until he sinks his fangs into the man’s neck.

They’re the kind of images that make you want to look away. But where are ones that make you want to look? Or force you to understand?

Escobar seems just as one-dimensional at the end as he was at the beginning—a rich criminal who praises his wife (while sleeping around on her) and adores his children (while killing other people’s). And Vallejo comes across as little more than a pretty fool, a shallow clotheshorse who tries to justify her own moral flexibility with “I loved Pablo. I hated Escobar.”

My reaction was simpler. I couldn’t stand either.