“You think he doesn’t scare me?” Penélope Cruz asks about halfway through Loving Pablo, a lavishly entertaining, deeply amoral drug-life biopic that’s never believable for a second. “You think all the threats and death and smell of burnt flesh doesn’t affect me?” What’s unforgettable about this? Cruz says it flirtily, with an air of resignation, investing these horrific rhetoricals with her character’s outrage at having been told she’s too old to be on TV. Cruz’s commitment is admirable: She strives to find a weary sexiness in the smell of burnt flesh.
Double-stuffed with kill squads, killer ’80s couture and mood-killing howlers, Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s Loving Pablo is more a greatest hits than a story, the kind of radically compressed life-of-a-legend movie where everything happens in a giddy, ridiculous gush. (Except for when it slows down to dwell on carnage.) About a half-hour in, cocaine king Pablo Escobar (Javier Bardem) argues with his wife about his efforts, after his election to the Colombian congress, to take on the president himself; she then announces she’s pregnant, but he interrupts her to take a life-changing phone call. Just minutes later, we flash back to see the death of a man he ordered murdered — the dude has a raving dog tied to his back that bites his neck when other dudes whack it with a bat. And then we watch Escobar, at dinner with his lover, the television journalist Virginia Vallejo (Cruz), droning on forever about all the ways she’ll be raped if things go bad for him.
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Cruz narrates, explaining a movie that seems set on fast-forward, laying out the cartel’s business in the U.S. and then Panama, the relationship between rival cartels and the DEA and the CIA, and how Vallejo discovers that maybe Escobar’s charitable work doesn’t justify his crimes. (The script is based on the real Vallejo’s memoir.) Escobar’s spates of threats and murders play as grisly comedy, arresting flourishes rather than the snuffing of human lives. “Soon all of those dead, whether killed by Pablo or his enemies, will haunt me as well,” we hear, over a shot of Cruz looking smashingly glum. Just minutes later, though, when Vallejo gets fired from her TV job, she vows to her boss that “Pablo” will blow up his house.
That’s staged, inexplicably, for laughs, as is the scene where Escobar tells a man about to be killed with a chainsaw, “Don’t complain — you’re already dead. This is just a formality.” But nothing in the movie is more funny than Cruz’s announcement, in voiceover, that “the previous moment to something happening is always the best moment, like when you are waiting for the man you love, or you are about to open a present.” (There's no typo in there, I swear!) A strong contender: the fact that the DEA agent who hounds Vallejo on a trip to the States gets given this assignment while standing just five feet behind the camera filming Ronald and Nancy Reagan themselves as they address the U.S. about the scourge of Colombian cocaine. Don’t chatter on set, guys!
Cruz has to scream and weep a lot, the editing and scripting doing her no favors. Bardem’s role, the kingpin family man incapable of satisfaction, is easier, but he’s continually upstaged by his fat suit, even when he flings spaghetti in anger or lets his beard consume his face. The stars never look like anything other than themselves, a pair of Spaniards playing Colombians speaking English, but the mansions, the helicopters, the pool parties, the killings and the fantasy of criminal power all impress just as they’re intended to. The camera glides alluringly through it all. Forget the climactic tragedy and Escobar’s unflattering croak, belly and activewear. Rather than a cautionary tale, this truly is about loving Pablo — especially loving the idea of being a man like him.