A story about infidelity, prostitution, racketeering, and murder set in the swinging, “free love” decade of the 70’s is one that can make for a deliciously trashy melodrama. But that didn’t happen in Taylor Hackford’s, Love Ranch, a bio-pic about the violence that erupts from the marital breakdown of Joe and Sally Conforte, the married co-owners of the famed legalized brothel, Mustang Ranch. The film tells a tawdry story about tawdry people engaged in a tawdry business. Unfortunately, Hackford’s pedestrian approach to the material barely raises the temperature of this real-life potboiler above a simmer.
Charlie and Grace Bontempo (the fictionalized Confortes) are a devoted, loving couple who manage Love Ranch — the first legal brothel in the United States — in relative accord, despite Charlie’s rampant infidelities which Grace stoically overlooks. Charlie (Joe Pesci) is the showman, and Grace (Dame Helen Mirren) is the brains behind the scenes (and the books she cooks to keep the IRS auditors at bay). She also plays den mother to the ranch’s harem of “working girls”, most notable among them, Samantha (Bai Ling), Irene (Gina Gershon), and Christina (Scout Taylor-Compton).
When Charlie promotes boxer Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and invites him to the ranch to train for the series of fights he has planned, the lonely and neglected Sally enters into an affair with the young fighter which proves deadly.
Love Ranch is to brothels and prostitution what Boogie Nights was to pornography, but it lacks the latter’s depth, edge, poignancy, and sly humor. Neither Hackford nor screenwriter Mark Jacobson digs below the surface details, nor do they plumb the depth of life in a brothel and the seedy world of prostitution. We never get to know the prostitutes as people — their circumstances, where they came from, or what caused them to sell their bodies for cash. They simply stand in the background as props. With the exception of Sally’s relationship with Armando, our emotions and sympathies toward the characters are never engaged.
If a mediocre film is lucky enough to count Mirren among its cast, then it is sure to have at least one bright spot — namely her. Here the poignant performances delivered by Mirren and Peris-Mencheta provide the film’s only genuine — and heartfelt — substance. Their chemistry makes their characters’ bond — which goes beyond the merely sexual — tender and believable. Pesci’s portrayal of Charlie is a kinder, gentler — yet still deadly — version of his Nicky Santoro character recycled from Casino. But we have seen this performance before, so his character comes across as grating and one-note; Pesci doesn’t offer us anything fresh.
Hackford has helmed many brilliant films (see Ray, Dolores Claiborne), but he makes a serious misstep with Love Ranch. The subject matter is certainly titillating enough to pique our interest, but the execution is too flat to grab and hold our attention. Unfortunately, this pulpy non-fiction lacks juice and as a result, we get a film with no fun, no humor, no depth, and finally, no point.