REVIEW: Despite Pedigree, Love Ranch Succumbs to Tired, Hookerific Cliches
Playing the madam at the center of Love Ranch, Helen Mirren seems acutely aware of the novelty of a freshly minted grande dame picking up her skirts and heading straight for the sex worker's equivalent of Disneyland. As Grace Bontempo (a pan-lingual take on Mrs. Goodtime) she runs the Love Ranch, one of Reno's legal prostitution outposts, with a self-consciousness unbecoming of one who could convincingly pull off royal blood. The spectacle of Mirren tricked out in mid-70's pimp wear -- ahead of her time, she even brandishes a cane -- has a certain charm, but novelty alone can't keep Love Ranch's tiresome tropes and plodding storyline from dragging the film down through the Nevada dust.
Director Taylor Hackford calls upon his wife to wear a series of polyester wrap dresses and a Mae West hair-do, auction off half-naked women like chattel, say things like "I'm falling apart, like this stupid town" and not smirk when her husband Charlie (Joe Pesci) barks, "Who do you think you are, the queen of f***ing England?" There are two ways to inhabit such material and avoid plummeting cliché: Play up the camp and shoot for cult status, or try and craft a stylish melo-epic from an unlikely source, à la Boogie Nights. Although Love Ranch leans toward the latter approach, the actors and the director don't seem to be working within a common sensibility, and the resulting fracture in tone leaves the film limping through its over-determined paces.
Drawing freely from the story of Joe and Sally Conforte (former owners of Reno's Mustang Ranch), Hackford and writer Mark Jacobson take their time setting up the story that powers the film. Instead they dawdle inside the brothel in the name of creating an "atmosphere" that winds up feeling strained and overly giddy. It's New Year's Eve and the Love Ranch is overrun with topless women, violent patrons, and a toupeed owner serenading his wife from the stage. If the look is spot-on '70s sleaze, the direction and dialogue feel pretty timelessly stale. Hackford indulges in an extended sequence, set to a snazzy R&B song, of women primping for their customers and then being cheerfully called, one by one, for duty. Isn't whoring a gas?
Mirren and Pesci work up a modest, trashy froth between them, in spite of their thinly written characters and the pedestrian machinations of the script. Mirren is surprisingly, affectingly resigned as a wife -- hiding a recent a terminal cancer diagnosis -- who tolerates her husband's infidelities, showing backbone only to give in as soon as his temper flares. Pesci is especially hard done by, playing a leathery grifter with an inferiority complex (he's bent on showing Vegas he's a contender) and the seemingly inevitable wicked cursing streak. Charlie also has a habit of ending his scenes with helpful declarative transitions: "I gotta go see Tommy Macy!" he says, marching out of the frame, and you'll never guess what happens next. "I gotta go to Reno to meet some people for lunch!" Cut to -- that's right -- Charlie in Reno, meeting some people for lunch. The lack of care and imagination suggested by these blaring cues contributes to an overall feeling of heaviness -- a director going through the motions -- that defeats any interest the viewer is willing to invest.
All is -- almost -- forgiven when we're offered the chance to watch Helen Mirren fall in love with a young Argentinean boxer. Charlie has hatched a plan to back Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) in a Vegas comeback attempt (Bruza has fallen on hard personal and professional times), and installs him on the ranch. Initially unimpressed by this giant, grinning slab of a man, Grace, who is appointed Bruza's de facto manager, is slowly won over by his open appetites and Latin lover voodoo. For years Grace has gone unnoticed among a crew of professional temptresses, and it takes a while for it to dawn on her that this guy just might be serious; watching that realization take root in her is the greatest pleasure this film has to offer. The more traditional threat of humiliation at work in the older woman/younger man dynamic -- which Mirren explored to full effect in her remake of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone -- is present enough here to add tension to the bond struck between the couple before it is subverted.
A thin subplot involving a political attack on the Love Ranch comes to suitably unsatisfying fruition when the anti-brothel protesters encircle the desert compound: "Maybe being a whore ain't so great," retorts one of the prostitutes (Gina Gershon and Bai Ling appear as two more), "but it beats flipping burgers." That's the extent of the film's philosophical position on its subject; perhaps it should have left the ethical debate aside entirely.
By contrast the boxing match where Bruza must prove his mettle is presented in gruesome detail. It's a bloated set piece that moves the film ahead by a fraction; we don't really care about Bruza's career, or whether he'll take Charlie to the top. His relationship with Grace bears only a fleeting bloom before jealousy and thuggery come to claim it. The film's denouement -- a lazy combination of landscape shots and wrap-up narration -- is also its final, unfortunate nod to stultifying convention.