Writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa’s Loving Pablo is alternately po-faced and campy in its rehashing of the well-documented rise and fall of the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Javier Bardem). The film portrays the ostensibly charismatic kingpin in such cartoonishly broad strokes that the whole affair has the melodramatic flair of a telenovela, even as it tries to retain the earnestness and gravity of an epic crime drama.
Aranoa’s take on Escobar’s life may offer an alternative to the grittily realistic portrayal of the drug lord on Netflix’s Narcos, but this ham-fisted vision accomplishes little else aside from elevating Escobar to the status of a legend, presenting the widespread chaos and destruction he left in his wake as something that should inspire awe. The amplification, and often inadvertent celebration, of Escobar’s many indulgences so often overshadows the damage he caused that you could be forgiven for understanding why so many of his fellow countrymen actually admired him well into the 1980s.
A late sequence depicting the murders that result from Escobar putting bounties out on Colombia’s police and soldiers offers a terrifyingly authentic peek into the depths of his depravity and the lengths to which he went to retain and expand his power. But such sobering scenes are few and far between, and for every one that expounds upon the twisted and complicated psychology behind such monstrous acts, Loving Pablo offers several others that merely luxuriate in the material rewards of his savagery, such as an extravagant pool party he throws where “anyone who is anyone is here.”
Though the film is narrated by Escobar’s longtime mistress, television journalist Virginia Vallejo (Penélope Cruz), and its events unfold through her point of view, this feminine perspective does surprisingly little to mitigate all the macho posturing on display. Virginia’s narration exists either to provide Wikipedia-style facts or simply describe things that could easily be inferred from the on-screen action. When Virginia says that Colombians only watch her on TV to see what she’s wearing, she might as well be talking about Cruz and Bardem. Just as the woman is a hollow shell of a person trapped beneath power suits and an array of bad ‘80s hairdos, Escobar is defined mostly by his mumbling speech and ludicrous prosthetic belly, which protrudes so profoundly from his unbuttoned shirts that it’s a surprise that it didn’t get top billing. Such garish costume details land as discordantly grotesque visual gags, undermining the dire circumstances the film seeks to portray.
In the film’s most unintentionally amusing scene, a naked Escobar sluggishly runs into a forest in order to escape a rain of gunfire. The sheer absurdity of this moment is made all the more off-putting for the way it arrives soon after we’ve seen Escobar enter a hut to rape one of the teenage sex slaves he has on hand. Such jarring clashes in tone arise from Loving Pablo having one foot firmly planted in the land of the straightforward biopic and another in full-blown camp, uncomfortably dwelling in a murky middle ground where everything is overblown but meant to be taken at face value.