The opportunity to play Pablo Escobar—murderous cartel kingpin and (briefly, at least) duly elected government official—seems to be too tempting for any Spanish-speaking movie star to turn down. Three years after Benicio del Toro (who’s Puerto Rican, not Colombian) menacingly growled his way through Escobar: Paradise Lost, and two years after Wagner Moura (who’s Brazilian, not Colombian) completed his two-season run as Escobar on Narcos, along comes Javier Bardem (who’s Spanish, not Colombian) in the ostensibly romance-fueled Loving Pablo, opposite his real-life wife, Penélope Cruz. This version of Escobar’s story is adapted from a memoir written by Virginia Vallejo, the TV journalist with whom he had an affair during the early 1980s; her original title, Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, has been chopped in half, perhaps because it suggests a duality that’s nowhere apparent on screen. Indeed, their banal relationship mostly serves here as a distraction to the genuinely sexy aspects of the Escobar mythos: cocaine and executions.
Written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa (A Perfect Day), Loving Pablo leaps immediately into cliché, opening at the end of the narrative—Vallejo (Cruz) being flown out of Colombia by DEA agents in 1993—and then flashing back to reveal, over the length of the movie, how she wound up in that predicament. We’re spared the freeze-frame and needle scratch, but not the ludicrous voice-over (presumably taken from the book), via which she informs us that “I’ve had to leave a house in the middle of the night because of a man before, but this is the first time I’ve had to leave a country.” Similarly dopey pensées dominate the soundtrack as the film jumps back to 1981 and chronicles Escobar’s rise to power, over the course of which he occasionally finds a few spare moments to alternately woo and threaten Vallejo, who’s attracted both by his macho swagger and by his generosity to Medellín’s downtrodden. “Things were about to change forever,” her voice-over helpfully explains, “in Colombia… and in my life.”
Hokey enough for you? León de Aranoa also supplies painfully on-the-nose musical selections, having Santana tell Rep. Escobar “You’ve got to change your evil ways, baby” and setting a cocaine-smuggling operation to “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (The latter sequence, which involves a small plane landing on a cordoned-off highway, offers a chance for those who saw American Made to imagine that the plane’s unseen pilot is Tom Cruise.) Peter Sarsgaard shows up as a DEA agent who wants Vallejo to flip on her lover, but the film’s attempt to create supplementary sexual tension between them never gets beyond low-grade innuendo. Cruz gets little to do in general apart from wear a succession of gaudy ’80s outfits, while Bardem, who gained weight for the role (reportedly aided by prostheses), acts primarily with his massive, frequently exposed gut. Both actors speak throughout in heavily accented English rather than Spanish, a choice that exemplifies Loving Pablo’s indifference to authenticity. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a vintage True Confessions article—the kind that would inspire a headline like “My Sin Was Loving Him.” In both cases, the steak can’t live up to the promise of the sizzle.