A thinly-veiled telling of married Mustang Ranch owners Joe and Sally Conforte, whose brothel became the first legalized house of prostitution in the state of Nevada, "Love Ranch" takes a number of liberties with the true story (hence the opening "Inspired by..." moniker) while turning the proceedings into what feels like a television movie with a fouler mouth. Here, Joe and Sally are Charlie (Joe Pesci) and Grace Bontempo (Helen Mirren), and their place of business is the same as the title of the film. Audiences expecting a searing look at the ins and outs of a professionally-run whorehouse will be in for a disappointmentwith just a few minor tweaks, the movie's setting and milieu could be changed to just about anyplacewhile those hoping for generous helpings of steam and titillation might as well look elsewhere. Director Taylor Hackford (2004's "Ray
") and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Jacobson are more interested in the doomed love triangle that ultimately formed when the Bontempos chose to manage and train Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), an Argentinian boxing champ who finds something of a kindred spirit in the tough but neglected Grace.
The year is 1976, and with twenty-five girls under their wings longtime marrieds Charlie and Grace Bontempo have made a nice living as business partners of their self-made Love Ranch, a brothel located just outside of Reno. Grace handles the books and finances, while hot-shot Charlie is a mover and shaker who dreams big and thinks nothing of cheating on his wife. When Grace is told that she has cancer and only six months to live, it is a bitter truth she tries to tell Charlie but can never seem to find the time to do it. When prizefighter Armando Bruza comes into their lives as a client, he takes an interest in Grace that she has long since stopped getting from anyone else. They almost instantly connect, but it is only after a discovery about Bruza's tragic past and his own respective health issues that Grace realizes just how much she and her unlikely new lover have in common.
"Love Ranch" exists within a seamy and sordid reality destined to culminate in criminal misdeeds and a burst of violence. When this arrives, it comes not as a surprise, but as an inevitability to the lives of characters whose happily-ever-after ending will probably never come. Shot in early 2008 before a long line of money woes and legal troubles left the project in post-production limbo before Canadian company E1 and Aramid Entertainment swooped in to handle domestic marketing and distribution, the film's problems have rubbed off on a finished product that can never quite achieve what it wants to. Rinky-dink production values and a moderate scope are all wrong for what should have had a sprawling, epic feel along the lines of 1990's "Goodfellas" or 1997's "Boogie Nights." The small-time indie feel of the production uncomfortably meshes with big emotions and melodrama played out to a part-twangy, part-Latino music score by Chris P. Bacon (2008's "Space Chimps
") that sounds as if it's tailor-made for a sudsy overseas soap opera.
With next to nothing learned about sex ranches or the women who reside therethey are a motley crew of clichés, none of them defined by more than a single characteristic eachdirector Taylor Hackford instead sets his sights on long-suffering matron Grace, her unexpected (to her) affair with Armando, and the personal struggle to come to terms with knowledge that her life is rapidly coming to a close. Helen Mirren (2009's "State of Play
") may be the wife of Hackford, but she's also close to flawless in the role, ideally cast and blessing Grace with layers of depth not quite equalled by her co-stars. Headstrong but vulnerable, torn between her devotion to her husband and her desire to finally do what she wants to rather than what everyone else expects of her, Grace is a fascinating individual made all the more watchable by Mirren. She very nearly saves the picture from its myriad flaws by sheer force alone.
Sergio Peris-Mencheta, enlivening Armando with the pain of his past mixed with the love he grows for Grace, delivers a strong performance, too; if his ill-fated romance with Grace is predictable and played too heavily for maudlin-induced pathos, at least he and Mirren make their bond a plausible one. Joe Pesci, in only his second film in twelve years, does his best to give Charlie some sympathetic sides of his own, but the character is such a decided creep one wonders why Grace has stayed with him as long as she has. In true form, Pesci favors four-letter words (especially the one beginning with a "F") and uses them as the centerpiece of Charlie's limited vocabulary. The supporting cast members are dealt an unsatisfying hand, especially considering the talent nabbed; Gina Gershon (2007's "P.S. I Love You
"), Taryn Manning (2005's "
A Lot Like Love"), Scout Taylor-Compton (2009's "Halloween II
"), Bai Ling (2009's "Crank: High Voltage
"), and Melora Walters (2004's "The Butterfly Effect
") are just a handful of the rag-tag ladies at the ranch, and either the meat of their roles found their way to the cutting-room floor or the parts were thankless to begin with.
"My mother always told me, 'Selling love will make you rich, just don't put your heart in it'," Grace narrates in the opening moments of "Love Ranch." She will return roughly two hours later for a concluding voiceover that is even clunkier and sounds just as much like something out of a trashy romance novel. If the deus ex machina
ending strikes a false note, then it is just further evidence that the film likely set out to make isn't precisely the one showing up in theaters. Grace and Armando only share a small amount of time togetherand, for what it is, there is a poignancy brought to the material by the actors involvedyet it is the focal point of a production that would have been better taking a deeper, more thorough glimpse into the world of legalized 1970s brothels and the controversies and arguments that arose from this game-changing decision. As is, this elementand, for that matter, the film at largeis treated like a Cliffs Notes version with pages torn out.