A Film a Week - Loving Pablo

There must some kind of competition between the high-profile Spanish-speaking actors who will serve as the best Pablo Escobar ever featured on either big or small screen. And after Édgar Ramirez (Killing Pablo), Benicio del Toro (very good in Escobar: Paradise Lost, even though the film itself was a kind of bland experience) and a brief episode by Mauricio Mejía in last year’s American Made, the turn came to Javier Bardem to put on his fake belly / fatsuit and his mask and to try his luck as the notorious drug kingpin in Fernando Léon de Aranoa’s Spanish-Bulgarian co-production Loving Pablo. Maybe somebody should tell the whole crew behind this silly challenge that the goal has been already set pretty high by the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura of the Netflix TV series Narcos.

For his angle to this well-documented, told and re-told story, de Aranoa chose the best-selling memoir Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar by the drug lord’s former associate and lover, celebrated TV journalist Virginia Vallejo which he adapted himself. Generally speaking, de Aranoa is a reliable scriptwriter and even more reliable director of Mondays in the Sun fame, but after interestingly drafted, though cliché-ridden feature A Perfect Day and “on the right place at the right time” documentary Politics, Instructions Manual, Loving Pablo makes him look amateurish like a bottom of the class college boy trying to emulate the ultimate crime-drama bio-pic classics in the likes of Goodfellas. Long story short, everything he could do wrong – he did with vengeance.

His writing is lazy, relying to much on the source material and therefore clumsily patched with the god-awful voice-over narration done by Penélope Cruz who is also present as the semi-active co-leading character Virginia. The end result is that the voice-over is overlapping with the visual narration which would look better and more elegant without explaining the obvious. Even the structure is kinda pedestrian, lacking any kind of personal or political angle and simply lining up the biographical events in a chronological order. When he finally distances himself from the book, he does so in an atrocious fashion completed with borderline moronic dialogue and even more idiotic monologue.

The musical choices which were aimed to channel the scorsesian style of sorts are also lazy, reduced to often-heard 80’s cheesy pop, Latino and rock standards, with Carlos Santana’s Black Magic Woman (as the pillar of Latin rock) used completely out of context somewhere around the half an hour mark. The only interesting and humorous piece of soundtrack is the Christmas standard Let It Snow in the scene when the cartel’s transport jet lands on an American highway, but even this is too much on the nose (pun intended).

Also, the attempted use of torture and shock does not do any good for the film because it usually ends with some half-hearted brutality and over the top animal cruelty with a “top-down” approach in which a horse gets killed in the beginning, a dog gets beaten in an elaborate human torturing scene around mid-point and a flock of pigeons flies into the helicopter propeller near the end. And let us not speak about ripping off de Palma’s Scarface’s signature chainsaw scene.

Let us maybe speak about the use of the language(s) here. Filming mostly in English might seem as a reasonable, business-friendly solution, but with a heavy (as in totally fake) Spanish accent it just sounds ridiculous, especially underlined with Spanish curses and phrases known to every owner of a TV set. Unfortunately, that puts the central pair of actors between the rock and the hard place. They have some chemistry in the scenes they share (which is understandable given that they are a real-life couple), but their cartoonish accents, his constant mumbling and her occasional telenovella styled hysterical over-acting just remind us how both of them are not really on the top of their game when acting in English, like one The Counsellor or Vanilla Sky was not enough already. Finding the counter-argument might prove futile: Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men was wordless and the interaction between two of them in Vicky Christina Barcelona was mostly in Spanish which suits both of them better.

Speaking of acting, not that the rest of the crew fared better, with both Spanish or English dialogue, like Peter Sarsgaard as a DEA agent or Julieth Restrepo as Escobar’s slightly less glamourous wife Maria Victoria Henao, but that again is a strong case of seriously under-developed characters due to the lazy writing.

We might compare Loving Pablo to a car crash, but that would not be accurate. Trainwreck would be more adequate comparison, but still would not describe it completely. No, what comes to my mind is a mid-air collision over a densely populated area: leave any hope to be a survivor of this one.

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