By: Addison Wylie
Where, oh where, has Joe Pesci been? If you overlook his supposedly brief role in The Good Shepherd (I say “supposedly” because I have yet to see that movie), the actor known for making swearing an art, Pesci hasn’t starred in a movie since Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998, another movie I have yet to see; and for the most part, I hear it’s for the better. Love Ranch will mostly be known for Pesci’s return and I commend the film for managing to capture a stellar performance by the slick, motor mouth actor. However, Pesci’s acting isn’t the only element showcased here that is well done. In fact, the rest of the ensemble does a great job, the direction is very tight and enjoyable, and the technical aspects are good as well.
Based on a true story, the movie centres around Grace Bontempo, played by Helen Mirren, and Charlie Bontempo, played by the aforementioned Joe Pesci. The Bontempos are a power, business couple. Together, they have managed to build and promote a now well known legal brothel filled to the brim with prostitutes and customers. However, the couple has some skeletons in their closet. Charlie is constantly thinking about himself and the business and leaving Grace in the dust about a lot of decisions. For instance, being apart of a boxing promotion in order to help the ranch. It also doesn’t help that Charlie has a tendency to sneak off with some of the prostitutes and fool around. Grace, now realizing she has been diagnosed with Cancer and is most likely going to be stuck in the marital rut she’s in forever, meets Armando Bruza, played marvellously by Sergio Peris-Mencheta. Bruza is the young boxer Charlie takes under his wing and, to continue his streak of not filling in his wife on business decisions, decides to make Grace Armando’s manager. Grace doesn’t know the first thing about boxing and has no clue as to how to handle Bruza. However, Bruza takes a liking to Grace and helps her settle and maintain her manager title. The two, slowly but surely, begin to enjoy each others company and build a very strong relationship. As the Bruza’s big fight creeps up, Bruza starts to feel loving affection towards Grace and can’t bare to see Grace mistreated. The relationship develops more and more until Grace and Bruza must face an untouched situation.
Taylor Hackford, who’s last directorial project was the Oscar winning Ray, is able to restrain himself with the duty of directing this film. Hackford may seem like a director who maintains a particular, familiar style but here he’s able to pull back and be more subtle with his direction. The movie never feels fancy or glamourous. It’s more interested in storytelling than by expressing a stylistic take. I find this to be a very strong directorial decision because if Hackford was to utilize flashy cinematography, it would’ve been very distracting. Instead, Hackford is able to entrance his audience to the dialogue and the characters. I did enjoy that cinematography though. By using a darker colour palette and executing well framed shots, the finished product was appealing on the eyes. Also, it just so happens Hackford is working with a very strong script. Mark Jacobson captures what would make these characters miserable and aggravated but provides strong motives behind each character. Charlie is a crass, loud guy who wants to get his way but, due to Jacobson’s script and his ability to flesh out emotions, the audience can relate as to why Charlie is feeling like this. It doesn’t make his actions good by any means but we’re able to get inside that character’s head and view life as he sees it. Jacobson’s dialogue is bona fide as well. The exchanges between the prostitutes are funny but pack character as well. There’s a fight scene between characters Christina, played by Scout Taylor-Compton, and Mallory, played by Taryn Manning, that is very convincing, funny and packs a lot of emotion; and this is early on in the film. However, the exchanges between Grace and Armando are the strongest. The lines flow smoothly and we’re interested to see where the conversation goes. An example of this stellar script writing is when Grace is driving Armando as Armando explains why Grace is a great person and how he can’t stand to see her looked down upon. This scene also features an alarming endpoint, like many of the scenes, which takes the audience by surprise. With all this said, for a movie where the script packs a lot of information, Hackford has made a film that clocks in at around 2 hours but breezes by. Like the script, the pacing is very smooth so my hat tips towards, Paul Hirsch; the successful editor.
As I mentioned, Pesci does a flawless job here. He’s able to embody himself in the character. He uses some mannerisms and speaking patterns that we’ve seen before in previous Scorsese pictures he’s starred in but Pesci is able to take those characteristics and apply them to this new character. Mirren does a terrific job here portraying a broken soul who wishes she had done more than run a brothel. When Charlie loses his temper with her, we can see the pain in her eyes. In a single expression, we can see how much Grace would love to leave Charlie but feels tied down and committed due to the business and her thoughts that lead her to think that the relationship could get better. The breakout performance, to me, was Peris-Mencheta’s performance as Bruza. Peris-Mancheta is able to balance both Bruza’s personas; the affectionate, big teddy bear versus the frustrated, hard hitting boxer. The performance is so captivating because as much as Bruza may look and feel like the head honcho, he’s also fearful and uncertain and Peris-Mancheta is able to balance these emotions as well. He’s also a character that grows on the audience. After learning his backstory, we want to see him succeed which makes the emotional rollercoaster concerning him that much more difficult. The brief supporting roles are also solid and leave an impression. Bryan Cranston appears for a limited time but he’s able to add a lot more to the story with his screen time and M.C. Gainey, who plays Warren Stamp, Charlie’s muscle, is able to flesh out his character and in his few scenes that are dialogue driven, the audience can see he’s not a hulking, muscly cliche. Overall, the film is cast exceptionally well. Actresses like Bai Ling and Scout Taylor-Compton are two people that tend to get on my nerves rather fast when they are given lots of screen time; based on their previous work. However, they are cast perfectly here and are given the ideal amount of screen time they need to leave a positive, lasting impression.
I’ve been hearing a lot of negative feedback about Love Ranch and I have absolutely no idea where it comes from. After I was done watching the film, I was taken back by how much I throughly enjoyed it. The performances are superb and developed, the script does a wonderful job fleshing out its story and its characters, and Taylor Hackford is able to chalk up another winner next to his achievements.