What happens when the worst tendencies of a poor screenplay are exaggerated by labored and unimaginative direction? If you’re not careful, you might just end up with Love Ranch, a romantic melodrama that manages to evoke the weakest aspects of a potentially fruitful genre. Rather than try to downplay the laughable dialogue, overwrought events and twice-underlined symbolism of Mark Jacobson’s hackneyed script, director Taylor Hackford embraces them, bringing a portentous reverence to the characters’ clichéd declarations, calling on a catalogue of dull-minded aesthetic touches to augment the drama of the film’s key sequences and milking the screenplay’s latent sentimentality for all it’s worth.
Love Ranch takes place in Nevada in 1976. We know this because it opens at a New Year’s celebration at the eponymous Reno-area whorehouse, but in case we didn’t, Hackford obliges the viewer with a catalogue of simplistic temporal and spatial reminders. A quick-cut montage of billboards and neon signs near the film’s beginning, postcard-caliber shots of the desert throughout the film, and an aerial time-lapse view of downtown Reno are the director’s idea of evoking a “sense of place” while an 8-track inserted into a car’s tape deck (remember those!) serves to recall us to the time period.
The opening New Year’s celebration is presided over by the newly legalized brothel’s loudmouth co-owner, Charlie Botempo. Played by Joe Pesci in a bit of actorly self-parody, Charlie is predictably foul-mouthed and violent, the performance reminding us that Pesci is only worth watching when he’s given good dialogue and some depth of character. There’s a touch of heart behind his philandering, tax-cheating bastard, but for the most part Pesci is reduced to delivering lines like “Why don’t they just take a broomstick and shove it up my fucking ass?” because that’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from the actor.
The brothel’s co-owner is Botempo’s long-suffering wife Grace (Helen Mirren), the practical brains behind the operation and a woman whose vulnerability is well hidden behind an exterior built of equal parts toughness and world-weary indifference. When Charlie names her the de-facto manager (for legal purposes) of Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), the handsome, young Argentinean boxer he’s representing as one of his side projects, her long dormant sexuality is reawakened and the two start a torrid affair based as much on mutual understanding as sex. Shifting its focus from Charlie and the whorehouse to the incipient romance, Love Ranch is both love story and (to a degree) tale of female self-actualization. As the film shows, it’s never too late for a woman to have her sexual awakening, especially when a studly man 30 years her junior suddenly throws himself at her.
But nothing in this story is particularly convincing and no matter how many meaningful lines and tear-streaked glances Grace and Armando exchange, the actors never sell the lasting love behind the initial attraction. None of this is helped by the screenplay’s overburdening of its characters with conditions and backstory. Between Grace’s terminal cancer (which scarcely gets any narrative room amidst all the other bits of business), Charlie’s sterility (symbolic of his ultimate impotence as a man), and Armando’s ludicrous secret past, it’s no wonder the actors have no room to maneuver inside these characters.
And Hackford gives them even less room. A brief look at two scenes will suffice to show how the filmmaker’s direction works in tandem with Jacobson’s screenplay to effectively overwhelm the viewer with the dull-minded force of its melodrama. The film’s central boxing match between Bruza and a presumably weaker challenger is staged by Charlie as a showcase for the Argentinean for whom he hopes to win a shot at fighting Mohammed Ali. During the first round, Bruza nearly knocks out his opponent, but the latter is saved by the bell. Between rounds, Charlie turns to the influential promoter (Wendell Pierce) sitting at his side and begins negotiating his fighter’s next match. “It isn’t over yet,” suggests the promoter in a transparent bit of foreshadowing.
At first Hackford films the match in a crisp, legible style that marks the bout as one of the film’s more compelling sequences. But after the tide turns against Armando and he suffers a third-round knockdown, the director reaches into his bag of secondhand tricks and shoots a handful of POV shots in an impressionistic blur. When Armando gets up and resumes fighting, Hackford films the entire match in the same haze, intercutting non-blurry shots of the crowd reacting and (in extreme slow-mo) views of the Argentinean getting pummeled in the face. Having been softened by these unnecessary flourishes (which proved far less effective than Hackford’s straightforward direction of the earlier part of the match), the audience is then ready to absorb Jacobson’s own one-two punch, a pair of concluding melodramatic bursts. Following up a desperate outpouring of sentimentality (Grace rushing to the ring between rounds and begging her man not to go back in) with a silly narrative twist (a brutalized Armando suddenly regaining his sea legs and dispensing of his opponent with a single punch), the first-time screenwriter proves himself an apt student of the plot manipulations of such worthies as Paul Haggis.
Later, escaping Nevada, Grace and Armando drive off to spend the night in a cabin in Eastern California, located on the route traveled by the infamous Donner Party. As an Argentinean, Armando is unfamiliar with the account of those travelers and their forced cannibalism, so Grace relates the story in words that, combined with Hackford’s labored direction, make sure we pick up the symbolic import of the tale. As she concludes her narration, the director fixes Mirren in full-face close-up as she portentously intones the Native Americans’ horrified verdict on the Donners, “They eat of each other.” By giving such weight to this phrasing, Hackford makes it impossible for the viewer not to take the words as applying to the general situation of the film’s characters, but Jacobson isn’t leaving anything to chance.
A minute later, recalling the story, Armando spells it out for us: “We still eat of each other,” he says, before bursting into tears and revealing his outrageously contrived backstory to a sympathetic Grace. Hackford cues the mournful Spanish guitar theme (because Armando is a Spanish speaker?) that’s been underlining every dramatic scene in the whole movie, makes a last desperate play for audience emotion, and, finally, reveals himself as the perfect counterpoint to his screenwriter. Unable to think beyond the standard clichés of their respective arts, ever receptive to the most unimaginative bursts of sentimentality, the pair takes what amounts to some not terribly interesting material and turns it into copious gobs of mush.