The story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar is a familiar one, especially for fans of the Netflix TV series “Narcos.” The melodrama “Loving Pablo” takes another tack: We get the sordid tale through the eyes of the man’s mistress.
Penélope Cruz is smashing as Virginia Vallejo, a glamorous TV journalist we meet in 1993. She’s flying to the United States with a group of DEA agents. She’s got big earrings, immaculately poofed hair and a Julia Sugarbaker power suit.
“I’ve had to leave a house in the middle of the night because of a man before,” she announces, via world-weary voiceover. “But this is the first time I’ve had to leave a country.” In other words, girlfriend, pull up a chair and fill your glass, because I’ve got a story to tell.
And, man, what a story it is. We flashback to the ‘80s to when Pablo met Virginia. She’s among the Colombian elite invited to his house for a soiree. Pablo uses her to get on TV to talk about his philanthropic work; in reality, he’s giving birth to the Medellin Cartel, which will funnel millions of dollars worth of cocaine into the United States.
She’s attracted to both the man and his decadent lifestyle; he keeps elephants on his property, for heaven’s sake. “If you’re going to cry over a man, it’s better on a private jet than a bus,” Virginia opines. The narration in this movie is simply to die for.
It doesn’t matter that Pablo has a wife (Julieth Restrepo) and family. Virginia gets swept up in the romance. Soon, she’s sneaking wads of cash into the States in her luggage and attending a lavish party for drug traffickers. “The most illegal thing I’d ever done before that day was to double park,” she tells us with a giggle.
Javier Bardem, Cruz’s real-life husband, plays Pablo, so there is obvious chemistry, and he makes the drug lord suitably menacing and brutish. Still, this is Cruz’s movie all the way, and she carries it with panache. Did writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa intend for her to camp it up or did it just naturally happen? It’s hard to tell, but Virginia is both fabulous and fabulously human. If this movie turns out to be a hit, you’ll be seeing drag queen Penélope-as-Virginias out there.
Because this is Virginia’s take on things, we even get her narration when she’s MIA from the screen. That includes a spectacular sequence in which a semi is used to block a Florida highway so a coke-carrying plane can make a delivery. León (“Mondays in the Sun”) has a firm hand on the action sequences; one murder takes place on a crowded highway, with the camera looking down on the cars. It’s breathtaking.
There is also a strong “Goodfellas” influence apparent both in the narration and such sequences as a gruesome chainsaw murder that occurs while the Sandro tune “Rosa Rosa” gleefully blares on the soundtrack.
Other choices are questionable. The film is almost entirely in English, and at times the Spanish accents make the dialogue fairly murky. Bardem even goes full Brando and adopts a deep-voiced mumble, which leads to a lot of “What did Pablo just say?” moments.
Still, it’s tough not to be engaged. Cruz’s full-tilt flamboyance is just too much fun, and her more down-to-earth moments can be devastating. The final confrontation between Pablo and Virginia — she asks him for $80,000 to relocate to Europe — is both emotionally raw and quite scary.
At its heart, this is a soap opera — a bloody one, sure, but still a soap with deliciously ripe dialogue and a diva at the center. Virginia ultimately winds up ensconced in the United States and pondering whether to testify for the feds. “Pablo asked me to tell his story,” she purrs. “He just didn’t say to who.”
Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, based on the book “Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar” by Virginia Vallejo. Rated R (for strong violent content, some sexuality, language and drug use). Running time: 125 minutes. Now showing at AMC Rosemont 18 and on demand.