How many movies do we need about gritty, yet glamorous, highs and lows of those who make their living selling sex? With Love Ranch, Taylor Hackford crafts a bland entry in this category, one that half-heartedly goes through the motions of a racier story.
Hackford’s film bases itself of events that transpired between the shoddy walls of the infamous Mustang Ranch, the country’s first legal brothel. Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci star as Grace and Charlie Bontempo, fictionalized versions of the Mustang Ranch’s owners Sally and Joe Conforte. She’s a hardheaded businessperson, responsible for managing the Ranch’s daily affairs. He, on the other hand, guards his business (he calls it his “empire”) with self-importance worthy of a late Roman emperor. If the description of either character verges on stereotype, Mirren and Pesci play them as such; the former with flat delivery that belies a serious case of boredom, the latter aping the trademark manic energy from earlier performances in films like Goodfellas.
Love Ranch opens with a voiceover by Grace, who notes, “Don’t put your heart in the business of love.” This advice, dripping with clichéd world-weary wisdom, sets the tone for the film’s ungainly mix of melodramatic excess and cheap humor, the latter supplied by the brothel’s “psychotic” whores. Early in the film, Grace refuses chemotherapy to treat her cancer, choosing instead to continue living as normally as possible. Her desire to make use of this time draws Grace to Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), an Argentinian boxer recently acquired by Charlie as another marketing tool for his empire. Their attraction deepens when Charlie makes Grace Armando’s manager. The romance between Grace and Armando, however, devolves into a mess of hollow one-liners and contrived plot twists, elements that prevent the characters from displaying the urgency that such an attraction, wrought from bleak circumstances, entails.
Hackford’s portrayal of Reno and the controversy surrounding the legalization of brothels during the mid-seventies suffers from a similar preference for blunt gesture over nuanced storytelling. Aside from a few posters and a short protest staged at the Ranch by the brothel’s Christian opponents, Hackford never questions the motivations behind the local attitudes that both tolerate and exonerate the Bontempos. Despite the fact that the Love Ranch sits in an isolated patch of desert, the sexual and political issues that its dusty trailers raise have serious implications for the community in which it resides.
The Christian protestors that Charlie, and Hackford, so quickly dismisses are an indispensible response to the commercialization of the sexual revolution, one of many that will influence the nation’s swing to conservatism, endangering that power Charlie guards so dearly. Circumstances like these that make a film like Love Ranch worth making; without this scope, we’re left with a flat movie that doesn’t add anything to these crucial debates.
Like the desert surrounding the Love Ranch, the DVD is a sparse affair, featuring scene selections and trailers.