Judge Clark Douglas once worked at a Nevada brothel. He was the receptionist.
Our review of Love Ranch, published January 26th, 2011, is also available.
A story about money, power, murder…and the one thing that makes the world go round.
"You should be in prison."
Facts of the Case
Grace Bontempo (Helen Mirren, The Queen) and her husband Charlie (Joe Pesci, Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag) are the owners and operators of The Love Ranch, the first legal brothel in the state of Nevada. Charlie serves as the public face of the operation—he handles all the publicity, meets and greets the politicians, arranges all the swanky events and passes out the cigars. Grace works behind-the-scenes—keeping the books, managing the employees, keeping an eye on things and handling the practicalities of the business. Charlie and Grace's relationship has always been more of a business arrangement than an honest-to-goodness marriage, but they've gotten by well enough for the past 26 years.
One day, Charlie unexpectedly decides to go into business with a talented Argentinean boxer named Armando (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Resident Evil: Afterlife). Charlie will pay off all of Armando's considerable gambling debts, give him a place to train at the ranch and permit him to live there free of charge. In exchange, Armando will do a little advertising and bring some additional publicity to the ranch. Grace begrudgingly agrees to serve as Armando's manager, but she's frustrated about his arrival. After all, his presence makes her increasingly-complicated life even more complicated.
The IRS keeps asking questions about her business records, a group of activists are attempting to ban legalized prostitution and Charlie's having an affair with a young prostitute (Scout Taylor-Compton, The Runaways). Big as these problems are, they all seem insignificant when Grace is informed that she has cancer. Just as she's coming to terms with that, she learns that Armando has romantic feelings for her. So begins a complicated tale of love, death, politics and prostitution.
Taylor Hackford's Love Ranch is one kind of film for its first hour, another kind of film in its second, and isn't particularly satisfying on either side. There's undoubtedly a good deal of compelling drama to be found in the story of Nevada's first legal brothel, but Love Ranch stumbles around for the entirety of its 117-minute running time without ever finding it.
Let's start with the first hour, which details the struggles of running a brothel in the mid-1970s. The film begins by posing the question of whether brothels should be permitted to operate legally. There's no doubt that Love Ranch takes a firm pro-legal prostitution point-of-view, as evidenced by its stirring defense of the profession ("Nobody dreams of being a prostitute, but it's a living and it beats flipping burgers,") and its paper-thin characterization of the opposition ("God hates you and your stupid prostitutes! You're all gonna burn in hell!"). Obviously this is a controversial issue and there are compelling arguments to be made on both sides, but I have to say that Love Ranch does a pretty poor job of promoting the idea that legalized prostitution is a good thing. Its portrait of life at The Love Ranch is pretty hellish, suggesting the women working there are forced to service the sexual needs of grubby men around-the-clock with little rest, and that most employees are likely to encounter some form of physical abuse at some point. The misery depicted in the background of the film makes the scene in which the girls rally together to defend their profession feel more than a little false—I believe that they'd do it, but out of fear of what their employers might do to them otherwise.
Anyway, the straw-man arguments and the examination of life in an American brothel is pretty much abandoned halfway through, when the film begins to focus almost entirely on the affair between Grace and Armando. It covers the ground of dusty old melodramas—a handsome boxer who puts his life in danger every time he steps in the ring, a woman torn between a young, romantic lover and a life she's been stuck in for decades, the controlling husband who chews on cigars and makes angry threats—this is the stuff of cheap paperback novels, and the skill of the actors involved isn't enough to hide that fact. Not only is the film's second hour terribly melodramatic, but also terribly predictable. The film's ending is supposed to be one of catharsis and triumph, I guess, but rooted in sadness that's simply too deep to overcome.
Love Ranch was filmed in 2008, but sat on the shelf until 2010 due to financial and legal complications. That's well enough, considering that it officially kicked off a year loaded with films in which Helen Mirren plays rougher than all the boys. To be sure, it's entertaining to watch the 65-year-old actress beat guys with her cane and stomp on the throats of wayward employees, but the character seems a little thin despite the external color. The film never really lets us in on what makes Grace tick, on why she feels so desperately incapable of sharing her pain with Charlie or why she feels such a strong need for revenge. Mirren does what she can with the role, but it's vastly less compelling than her work in recent films like State of Play and The Queen.
As for Joe Pesci…well, I would advise you not to be fooled by the cowboy hat and Midwestern apparel, but there's no danger of that. Pesci is basically doing Tommy DeVito and Nicky Santoro all over again, albeit with an occasionally half-hearted attempt to disguise his distinctive accent. I've always liked Pesci, and I was certainly excited to see him in his first major role in 12 years (only interrupted by a small cameo in The Good Shepherd), but…I don't know. We've seen this before, and the routine nature of the screenplay only further accentuates the fact that Pesci has played this role in other, better films.
Peris-Menchata is sincere and pleasant in his role, but can't really do anything to make it memorable. Gina Gershon is nearly invisible as Grace's right-hand woman, only making an impression in a couple of scenes. Talented supporting players like M.C. Gainey (Lost), Wendell Pierce (Treme) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) are wasted in throwaway roles.
Note: It's worth mentioning that the film is surprisingly restrained in terms of sexual content. Despite featuring a brothel as its central location, there's very little in the way of nudity or explicit sexuality. The film deserves credit for resisting the urge to add a cheap exploitation element to the flick—I just wish I were able to give it credit for something more substantial than that.
Love Ranch arrives on Blu-ray sporting a sturdy 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. While a good deal of effort has been put into capturing the subdued midwestern glitter of the era, the transfer doesn't quite leap off the screen. Detail is respectable most of the time (particularly facial detail), but a few scenes seem pretty soft. Blacks are satisfactorily deep throughout. The audio is solid, with clean, clear dialogue and a lilting, guitar-driven score by the wonderfully-named Chris P. Bacon dominating the track. There aren't many really explosive moments (the boxing sequence midway through is probably the most aggressive in terms of audio, though the opening party scene comes close), but the track gets the job done nicely. Supplements include an audio commentary with Director Taylor Hackford, a brief introduction from Hackford and Mirren and a handful of deleted scenes (with optional commentary).
More like "Eh, It's Tolerable" Ranch.
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