From the opening sequence, it’s apparent “Love Ranch” wants to be another “Casino” or “Boogie Nights.” The problem is, Taylor Hackford is neither Martin Scorsese nor Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s a solid director, but lacking a definable, know-it-when-I-see-it style. Without work worthy of the “auteur” label, middling results are all that’s bound to come out of a project so ambitious.
“Love Ranch” is based on the story behind Nevada’s infamous Mustang Ranch brothel, the first legal whorehouse in the nation. Husband-and-wife owners Joe and Sally Conforte undergo a name change to Charlie and Grace Bontempo in this fictionalized version, and are played by Academy Award winners Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren (Mrs. Hackford, incidentally).
The cautionary tale is all about sex, drugs and boxing. Charlie’s the kind of guy who smokes cigars with $100 bills wrapped around the ends; Grace is the mother figure to their stable of girls (Gina Gershon, Scout Taylor-Compton, Taryn Manning, Bai Ling, Elise Neal and Melora Hardin among them, but all underused), yet her heart really isn’t in the business.
Hell, her heart isn’t in Charlie, either, who freely samples his goods. Grace takes a shine to the young, strapping, steel-plate-in-head boxer (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) whom her hubby is grooming to be the next Muhammad Ali. If you think Charlie is the jealous type, you’re right, and the consequences are understandably tragic.
But just because a story is true doesn’t make it worth telling in film, and this is a prime example. Mirren is fine, Pesci is Pesci (now a parody of himself, sadly), but neither is sympathetic nor interesting enough to merit a two-hour feature, or even half of one. I’d rather see a documentary than the standard, period-piece biopic with all the expected dated music cues that this is.
The worst thing about “Love Ranch” is Mark Jacobson’s unremarkable screenplay, devoid of any kind of narrative spark. All it does is go from A to Z, with no unexpected scenic turnoffs in between. That makes the film strangely inert. When a movie centered on the business of flesh isn’t even worth watching for gratuitous nudity, something’s more than a bit off. —Rod Lott