LOVE STORY is a peculiar movie. It is based on the true story of the notorious Mustang Ranch just outside of Reno, Nevada, a brothel that was world famous run by a couple by the name of Joe and Sally Conforte who had chutzpah and an ongoing run-in with the IRS and the law in bringing in boxer Oscar Buenovena as an addendum to their game of wealth. The facts of the brothel's existence are true as are the characters portrayed in the film, but a considerable amount of artistic license as to dates and chronology of event were taken by writer Mark Jacobson. The result is a strange conglomeration of a story, boring as roadkill during the first half but awakening into a rather tender melodrama in the second half. And it is worth the wait. Taylor Hackford directs his wife Helen Mirren, and as we have come to expect, anytime Mirren is in a film there is at least a modicum of fine acting.
The Confortes become the Bontempos for LOVE RANCH (aka Mustang Ranch of history) and Joe Pesci as Charlie Bontempo is an ex-con with a potty mouth who married Grace (Helen Mirren) 20 some years ago, and together they have built the world's largest brothel - the first legal one in Nevada. Grace at first is cheap and tacky, walking with a cane and constantly reminding Charlie of her importance: her character changes a it when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer by her doctor (Broadway singing star Harve Presnell in a tiny and last role; he died in 2009) . Charlie beds all the women who work at Love Ranch and Grace is aware of it. Grace befriends her 'staff' - Gina Gershon, Ling Bai, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton, Elise Neal among others - and Charlie tends to the business of promoting the Ranch as well as taking chances with other projects, such as tempting famous Argentine boxer Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) to move to the Ranch for training in preparation for a fight with (supposedly) Muhammed Ali. Bruza arrives and insists Grace be his manager and she reluctantly accepts out of a sense of being attracted to Bruza. Her girls, especially Irene (Gina Gershon) encourage Grace to live for the moment and give in to the desire for an affair with Bruza. Grace and Bruza do indeed find each other's soft core and fall in love. Bruza is prepared for a fight, but in the fight he staggers through the first rounds only to win by a late surprise knockout: Grace rushes Bruza to the hospital because of his unstable status and there she discovers Bruza suffered a previous brain injury years ago resulting the placement of a metal plate in his skull. This discovery and the events that it initiates bring the film to a tender but tragic end - on many levels.
The cinematography by Kieran McGuigan is splendid when surveying the beauty of the land around Reno but uncomfortably monochromatic through most of the rest of the film. The musical score by Chris Bacon (who has many fine credits for other films) is almost unbearably bad. Joe Pesci, made up to look very old, is in this viewer's opinion miscast: he rarely gets beyond being a screaming filthy mouthed moron. Helen Mirren transforms Grace from a tawdry Madame to a truly beautiful but tired partner for Charlie, opting to spend her few final days with one who can demonstrate his care for her. Sergio Peris-Mencheta manages to make his blustering character one of compassion and vulnerability.
In all this is a movie that, once over, seems well worth watching as the credits reveal all the facts about the destinies of everyone involved in the story. Get past the first half hour or so and you're in for a fine film. Grady Harp, October 10