Film Reviews

LOVE RANCH

By • Aug 8th, 2010 •

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It’s the story of a marriage but not the one on screen. Taylor Hackford tarnishes wife Helen Mirren’s illustrious streak but gets a paycheck. Horrible TV script.

It’s inspired by a true story of the first legal brothel in the U.S., the Mustang Ranch outside Reno, Nevada. I am a transplanted New Yorker living in cleaned-up, mob-less Las Vegas. Everyone loves our mayor, Oscar Goodman, formerly a self-described “mob lawyer.” During his career as a defense attorney he represented defendants accused of being some of the leading organized crime figures in Las Vegas.

Currently, prostitution is legal in Nevada only in rural counties with less than 400,000 residents, a requirement which excludes Clark County and the city of Las Vegas from allowing the practice. In 2003 the majority of Nevadans polled opposed Mayor Goodman’s proposal to legalize prostitution in the city’s downtown area as a revenue generator and tool for revitalization. Well, that was 2003. It might be reconsidered now that Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. The official jobless rate in Nevada set an all-time high of 14.2 percent in June 2010. Nevada also leads the nation in foreclosures and bankruptcies.

Joe Conforte, with his wife Sally Burgess Conforte, owned and operated the Mustang Ranch. In 1976, Argentine boxer Oscar Bonvavena was shot at the ranch by Conforte, who thought he was having an affair with long-suffering Sally.

This is their story…sort of.

The “Love Ranch”, as envisioned by director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Mark Jacobson, is a great place to work! Sure, it’s the 1970s, but the mob is nowhere to be seen, only some silly anti-prostitution, nosey cabal who are “against pleasure”.

Like HBO’s CATHOUSE, the girls of Love Ranch squabble over petty things but generally hang around and have lots of fun! The girls watch each other’s back and it’s Mama Grace Bontempo (Helen Mirren) who keeps things running smoothly. It’s a sorority for women who never graduated high school. And just like CATHOUSE, the male owner gets to have sex with all the young girls.

I keep hoping to one day see a prostitute turn up at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch and not call owner Dennis Hof “Daddy” or allow him to use her as he sees fit – unless he pays the going rate.

Well, it’s a perk grandfathered in.

Grace knows and tolerates Charlie Bontempo’s (Joe Pesci) constant sex with the staff but using her fur coats to dress up his dates makes her furious!

Hackford and Jacobson cannot decide on the relationship between Charlie and Grace. In many scenes Charlie (Pesci, reprising his GOODFELLAS Tommy DeVito character) insults Grace and goes medieval on her, then suddenly he goes all soft. Grace deals with Charlie by cooing and coddling him, and soon they are kissing. In every scene, Sally defers to Joe while she holds the books and money.

After over 22 (Grace says) or 25 (Charlie says) years together, Grace is clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

Apparently, Grace does not resent Charlie or the girls. But how much can a woman diagnosed with cancer tolerate?

Charlie – who must be kept entertained and stimulated – bails out Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), an Argentinan boxer, and brings him to the Love Ranch to train. He puts Grace’s name on the contract. She’s officially his manager.

Grace was raised in a brothel run by her mother, but the hard edge of the sex trade has never touched her. She has her humanity intact. The only genuine attention Grace has felt in years comes from Armando, who shows a puppy’s joy just being in her company. He never even bothers with the hookers. He keeps smiling at Grace. Grace caves in.

Of course, no one mentions dual standards of morality, and when Charlie finds out, he goes ballistic.

As the proverb goes, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” and Charlie’s plate has been set down in front of him. But his ego and the shame in front of the sex workers and his goon-staff is never shown. It wasn’t love but a bruised ego that triggered the murder.

Nevada’s desert looks ugly and it’s hard to give dimension or color to the starved, brittle wasteland. Add to that, the 1970s were not the most attractive era, especially in Reno, Nevada. No one looks good in Halloween sex worker costumes – thank the Lord Bai Ling had a non-speaking part. No, brothels were, and still are not, concerned with architectural details, but the Love Ranch is so awful, I kept wondering if they had flush toilets.

The relationship between Charlie and Grace is awkward. The relationship between Grace and Armando is unbelievable.

Pesci can only be directed by Martin Scorsese, so he is self-directed here. He has no handle on his character. It’s a schizophrenic performance in a bad wig. Mirren faithfully obliges her husband, who does her no favors. Directed with indifference and without a peck of understanding, Hackford wastes his wife’s run of great roles and with LOVE RANCH takes her away from being in a much better film. Yes, the screenplay is terrible without any insights to the character’s complexities, but Hackford directs this as if he were merely getting a salary and directing from his trailer by giving suggestions to his assistant director.

You could see Mirren trying to direct herself.

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