Loving Pablo (2017)

The giants of American gangster cinema loom large over Fernando León de Aranoa’s patchy crime drama Loving Pablo, with Martin Scorsese casting a particularly long shadow. It’s an unspoken rule of filmmaking – if you’re taking inspiration from established masterpieces for your movie, stop drawing the viewer’s attention to the films you’re trying to rip off. That’s not to say Loving Pablo is a bad film, it’s just extremely derivative, and by evoking Goodfellas from the opening line De Aranoa sets himself a very tough task – playing the masters at their own game.

The film is based on the book Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar by Virginia Vallejo, the Colombian journalist and TV personality who found herself embroiled in an affair with one of the most notorious villains of the 20th century, drug lord Pablo Escobar, who is played with typical intensity by Javier Bardem. Penelope Cruz inhabits the giant shoulder pads of Vallejo, and the story immediately dives into her extensive voice-over, reminiscent of Karen Hill’s version of events in Scorsese’s mob epic.

The story of Pablo Escobar has been told before, and will no doubt be told again many times in future, so it’s an interesting angle to tell the familiar tale from the perspective of one of the women in his chaotic, violent life. However, as the story progresses one can’t escape the nagging feeling that Vallejo was only one of many characters in the sprawling saga of Escobar’s reign, and she disappears for long stretches of the film, often only popping up as a voice over to ladle on some more exposition.

Loving Pablo

Directed by: Fernando León de Aranoa
Starring: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard

In short, Vallejo often seems like the most boring person at her own party and the film shudders to a halt whenever she’s onscreen, distracting from all the engrossing gangster stuff. It doesn’t help that she’s not a particularly interesting or well-drawn character – she only seems motivated by fame and power, and the screenplay never scratches the surface of what keeps an intelligent woman involved when it turns out their lover is a murderous psychopath. Cruz, usually a very capable actor, apparently bases her acting choices for Vallejo on some third-rate Colombian soap opera. It’s an outsized and histrionic performance, and I’ve seen better rewarded with a Golden Raspberry nomination.

Cruz’s voice over is the first thing to remind the viewer of Loving Pablo‘s stylistic similarities to Goodfellas, and throughout the movie De Aranoa continues to crib from the Scorsese playbook. There’s the tracking shots, the freeze frames, the period detail, and the copious amount of classic tunes to compliment the action and crystalize the film’s time period. It’s a shame that he uses the techniques so self-consciously without Scorsese’s flair or authority, and without any apparent understanding of why they work so well for the legendary director.

Escobar’s true life story follows the traditional rise-and-fall arc of so many classic gangster movies, and De Aranoa is content to frame his film within a familiar template, which feels reductive for such a fascinating tale. The film picks up with Vallejo meeting Escobar at a lavish pool party celebrating his ascendancy to the head of the Medellin cartel, and follows a fairly linear trail to his inevitably bullet-ridden demise. De Aranoa’s screenplay fails to bring any colour to the supporting characters, another area where Goodfellas excels – think Morrie the wig salesman, made man Billy Batts or the ill-fated Spider – making Loving Pablo feel curiously underpopulated.

There’s also some good news, though – enough to make Loving Pablo worth a slim recommendation.

Firstly, when De Aranoa isn’t tentatively aping Scorsese, he can really stage a cracking action set piece. There’s an astonishing scene depicting an audacious delivery of a shipment of cocaine onto American soil, where Escobar’s henchmen use an 18 wheeler to block traffic and turn a freeway into an improvised runway for a cargo plane laden with drugs. His depiction of the sicario, desperate young men trained to carry out hits with uzis while riding on the back of motorbikes, is chilling and brutal. And there’s a bravura helicopter raid on Escobar’s jungle hideout where Bardem, having piled on the pounds for the role, lets it all hang out in the most unflattering way.

Then there’s Bardem himself. This is not a nuanced study of Escobar by any means, and in some ways serves as a piece of counter-revisionism, as the drug lord is sometimes portrayed as a Robin Hood character. Bardem plays him as an outright monster, and he’s joyously loathsome. Few actors working today are capable of doing shark-eyed menace as well as he does, and after portraying two of the century’s most memorable villains in Raoul Silva (Skyfall) and Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), he dives once again into his box of outrageous wigs to create another wondrously malevolent character.

So, if you want a really detailed study of Pablo Escobar and his drug empire in the ’80s and early ’90s, check out the Zimbalist’s magnificent The Two Escobars, which also doubles as the best movie ever made about football. If you want a pulpy gangster movie with a pantomime villain Escobar and loads of gruesome deaths, Loving Pablo will fulfil your need for vicarious drug war thrills.

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