Desert Pulp

Hackford’s Nevada brothel biopic doesn’t know where to begin

Love Ranch holds the seedy promise of a ’70s period piece bubbling over with all the nudity, camp humor and tantalizing danger of a Russ Meyer cult movie. Unfortunately, Taylor Hackford, the director who gained widespread kudos for his 2004 Ray Charles biopic, proves incapable of fitfully exploiting more pulpy subject matter.

The film is based on the real-life exploits of Joe and Sally Conforte, the husband-and-wife team who opened and operated the first legal brothel in the country, Nevada’s Mustang Ranch. Despite the titillating promise of the storyline, the film plays it so safe that the only thing holding it together is Helen Mirren’s flawless performance as Grace Bontempo, the elegant brothel madam with a showboating husband named Charlie (played by a miscast Joe Pesci).

Pesci repurposes the mobster characters he played in movies such as Goodfellas for a middle-aged playboy with a Napoleon complex. But substituting cowboy boots for Italian suits doesn’t go far enough to resettle Pesci into a part that’s too suggestive of his former Mafioso roles.

Narrative rubber hits the road when macho entrepreneur Charlie insists on underwriting a washed-up Argentine boxer named Armando Bruza (well played by Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Here again, names of the actual persons have been inexplicably changed. Oscar Bonavena was the real-life boxer whose life was cut short in 1976 due to his bumpy relationship with the co-owners of the Mustang Ranch.

Armando is a crass lug of a guy. His ringside introduction to Charlie’s dignified wife carries a loaded weight of adulterous potential. There’s more than a little Postman Always Rings Twice-themed drama brewing. At first repulsed by Armando’s sweaty, overbearing presence, Grace uncomfortably warms to the boxer after Charlie insists on boarding him in a nearby trailer park the couple owns. Charlie makes a timeless mistake when he assigns Grace to be Armando’s manager, responsible for overseeing the fighter’s work-out regime in preparation for a big fight that Charlie believes will lead to great fortunes for all concerned.

Screenwriter Mark Jacobson’s stilted script leans hard on the budding relationship between Armando and Grace, who has recently discovered that she has terminal cancer. However, the movie never taps into the bed-banging rhythms of the brothel’s milieu as it might inform the lustful desires of the star-crossed lovers. Grace’s and Charlie’s problematic business relationship is clearly spelled out. And yet a subplot about local political pressures against the brothel confuses the story rather than building suspense toward the competing climax situations of Armando’s upcoming boxing match and his romantic fate with Grace.

Mirren, Hackford’s real-life wife, hasn’t worked with the director since they met on the set of his 1985 film White Nights. Love Ranch is very much Mirren’s movie, up until an obligatory violent ending that’s handled with such predictability that it deflates the dramatic suspense and leaves Mirren’s character holding the bag. Plot points take over with such a mechanical force that Grace’s voice-over narration that closes the cinematic ceremonies seems like a cop out.

Love Ranch is an off-key biopic that doesn’t know where to begin or end. What comes between might have moments of emotional truth, but the reality is submerged where it should be heightened and made bland where it should sting. Nothing looks cheap or expensive enough to capture anyone’s imagination, not even the poor souls stuck in such a dusty fly trap in the middle of the desert.

Love Ranch (R) ★★☆☆☆