Friday 14 September 2018

"Escobar" (Guardian 14/09/18)

Escobar **
Dir: Fernando León de Aranoa. With: Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard, Julieth Restrepo. 123 mins. Cert: 15

Until recently, any biopic of druglord Pablo Escobar starring Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz – especially one directed by well-regarded social realist Fernando León de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun) – would have presented as a major event. Perhaps Netflix’s Narcos has reduced any such project’s thunder. After lukewarm responses at last year’s Venice and Toronto festivals (where it premiered as Loving Pablo), the biopic we’ve ended up with has had to assume an alias, a development that might have brought a crooked smile to its elusive subject’s face. The film sneaking onto UK screens this weekend as the bluntly no-nonsense Escobar is not without interest, sweep or colour, but bears signs of high-level, edit-suite indecision over what sort of movie it wants to be. It’s alluring product, inexactly cut.

De Aranoa’s film claims greater authenticity than 2014’s Benicio del Toro oddity Escobar: Paradise Lost – it draws on a memoir by one of Escobar’s flings – but it feels ungallant that our narrator, TV anchorwoman Virginia Vallejo, should be framed as such a vapid, hair-tossing entrypoint; all Cruz can do is work the myriad wardrobe changes while delivering heavily accented exposition. Vallejo’s brutally rude awakening permits de Aranoa to address the finer points of Escobar’s enterprise, yet any idea of a cool, unsparing overview has been hijacked by producers craving more sensation for their bucks. Intelligence gathering gets interrupted by grunting sex and grisly violence; an impromptu plane landing is one of several points where events tesselate with last year’s more confidently packaged American Made.

Bardem strives commendably to hold it together, surviving the twin burdens of prosthetic belly and shaggy Maradona perm to make this Escobar a distinct, semi-fascinating monster. A muttering schlub (with conspicuously flabby backside) who briefly became the Americas’ most wanted, he’s capable of making truly horrific rape threats – and still we miss him whenever the focus changes. Had de Aranoa followed his Pablo more committedly into the darkness, Escobar might have merited full ticket price. Instead, you feel the suits leaning on their director’s shoulders, touting K-Tel compilations and requests to jolly the carnage along. The results are a very mixed bag, its virtues muffled by breathlessly recounted non-sequiturs and lurching tonal shifts of a kind Narcos has finessed over several hours.

Escobar opens in selected cinemas today.

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