Judge Steve Evans went to The Ranch and picked up a case of pseudo-erotic melodrama.
It wasn't good enough for Showtime.
Director Susan Seidelman, who has seen happier days (Desperately Seeking Susan), turns in a slapdash 90 minutes of T&A in this fictitious "peek" inside a Nevada brothel. Originally intended as the pilot episode of a raunchy series for Showtime, executives at the cable channel didn't think enough of this drivel to pick it up. So rather than allow all that soft-core footage to rot in a can, the producers thought up a novel solution: cobble together a direct-to-DVD movie and sell it to an unsuspecting audience of horny teenage boys and middle-aged men who were denied the chance to see such sights on cable television.
Facts of the Case
The Ranch chronicles a few weeks in the lives of half a dozen hookers, both their private lives, which are rather mundane, and their time at the brothel…which is mildly more exciting. They have boyfriends and ex-husbands. Bills to pay and novel ways of paying them. And like anyone else, these ladies struggle with their dreams; some half-realized, some failed. We never meet the owner(s) of The Ranch and it is unclear where all the money flows, as the girls are not living lives of luxury (though in this make-believe world they fare far better than their real-life counterparts). Not surprisingly, the movie presents a whorehouse from a male-fantasy perspective, pausing only to impose just the most basic identifying traits on each of the women. These characters are fleshed out only in a literal sense.
Because the picture was originally intended as a pilot for cable television, the story lines do not blend together or evolve in a satisfying way. It doesn't come across as a movie, but as a series of vignettes spliced together, punctuated by soft-core footage and shoehorned into a 90-minute run time.
Seidelman at first blush might seem an obvious choice to direct this heart-tugging saga of working gals and their problems beyond the bordello. After all, she had directed the 1998 pilot for HBO's Sex and the City and we know what that did for the careers of its pretty stars. So in fairness, maybe the jumbled mess that is The Ranch might have worked as a half-hour dramedy, when the multiple story threads would have played out over several episodes. Instead, plot lines are tied up in preposterously tidy fashion—or not at all. What's left is the movie's only real raison d'etre: attractive women removing their clothes. But watching them get it on with their paunchy, balding johns is dull as drying latex—paint, that is.
The Ranch is home to an assortment of archetypal movie hookers. One working girl (Samantha Ferris) is leaving the life to get married; only her fiancé doesn't know her past. Another has a sexual identity crisis, trying to decide if she likes girls more than boys. This serves as an excuse for the inevitable lesbian sex scene. One gal (Paige Moss) dresses up like a pouting schoolgirl to woo the pervert brigade. We also meet a Hollywood actress (Nicki Micheaux), who turns to prostitution when her Tinseltown dreams fail to come true. The Ranch madam (Amy Madigan, Field of Dreams) packs a no-nonsense attitude backed up by her 9mm semi-auto. The only star in the cast, Madigan, also known as Mrs. Ed Harris, gives a game performance that seems oddly out of place for such low-rent material—the actor's equivalent of polishing mud. Perhaps her agent talked up big dreams of turning The Ranch into a bawdy and equally successful version of Sex and the City, so Madigan signed up.
The movie's most touching subplot involves a divorcee (Jessica Collins) who tries to reconcile turning tricks with her desire to be a good mother, while battling with her ex-husband over custody of their only child. This is still a pale imitation of genuinely heartbreaking scenes in Boogie Nights.
The fullscreen video offers an acceptably clean image, which was obviously framed for television in spite of the familiar pre-credits intertitle, "This film has been modified from its original version: It has been formatted to fit your screen." Doubtful. More likely, someone in charge of the DVD production was running on autopilot and added the caveat out of habit. The only real extra besides a trailer is a five-minute sneak peek at Species III, another direct-to-video flick featuring naked women, albeit from another planet.
The Ranch isn't so much a movie as a series of silly vignettes spliced together in an arbitrary manner, with the selling point of skin. The flick doesn't have any substance and only a modicum of style. So how does this differ from hardcore pornography? No money shots, for one thing. Mostly, though, The Ranch exists in that softcore netherworld of DVD product marketed to guys who either aren't old enough or can't get up the nerve to visit a video store and rent or buy the real deal. As an abandoned television pilot, it's hard to imagine that this material would have appealed to a female demographic, despite the (rather desperate) attempts to thrust feminism and sexual liberation into the plot. We certainly cannot look at the private lives of these women, their goals and dreams, their plans and schemes, without laughing at the clumsy staging and preposterous dialogue. If The Ranch was played for camp value and didn't try to make a statement, it would probably be a lot more fun. Instead, the movie lurches in tone from sex comedy to feminist manifesto to low drama and back again. Let's not kid ourselves. Like the oldest profession itself, the purpose of The Ranch is self evident. And with a suggested retail of $26, there's no need to negotiate a price.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So what's left? Nudity galore. Simulated sex. Amusing non-acting by thespians who were evidently selected for their physical attributes. If that sounds like a hubba-hubba good time, then buy a copy.
At best, The Ranch might play well on bad-movie nights; those revered occasions when guys get together to drink beer, say crude things and enjoy the vicarious thrill of naked female flesh, without taking any of this too seriously.
Representing hypocrisy of the worst kind, The Ranch is found guilty of the very thing it ostensibly preaches against: objectification of women.
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