Who hasn't heard of The Mustang Ranch? The most famous brothel in the United States, the Mustang Ranch stood proudly for decades in the Nevada desert catering to a diverse clientele base, including crews of many famous Hollywood westerns. Several years ago, Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci brought to life a fictionalized version of the Mustang Ranch story and its owners Sally and Joe Conforte in the Taylor Hackford directed Love Ranch. In Love Ranch, many moviegoers learned for the first time of the RICO and tax problems that faced the brothel but because of the film's focus, the details of the long arm of the IRS weren't given the depth necessary for full understanding. And that's where David Landsberg and SEX TAX come in.
A parody rooted in truth and fact, SEX TAX is the hilarious comedic version of a 1999 chapter of US history when the IRS took control of the assets of the Mustang Ranch. Yep. The US government owned a whorehouse. (Probably not too far a stretch from Congress though when you think about it.) In this lampoonish send-up of one of our country's best examples of truth being stranger than fiction, writer David Landsberg and director John Borges take the bull by the bra straps, and deliver a comedy melding the world's oldest profession with the world's most corrupt profession; where prostitution meets politics, complete with over-the-top caricatures of well known stereotypes and tropes, all stitched together with the common thread of a former Eagle Scout and IRS auditor named Steven Billings.
Steve Billings is as nice a guy as they come. Former Eagle Scout from a loving, good, cleaning living patriotic home in suburban Philadelphia, his adoptive parents are the salt of the earth and are the epitome of what "family" truly means. But as sweet as Steve is, seems the only job he can get with his University of Pennsylvania education is one as an auditor for the IRS. Now what's a nice guy like Steve doing in such a heartless job? Turns out for the Hen House Ranch in Nevada, it's a good thing he is.
Assigned a very complex audit by his supervisor Erle, the first piece of the corporate puzzle that Steve tackles is one of the corporate holdings - the Hen House Ranch. But while Steve is heading to Vegas for a look up close and personal at the books and records, Hen House owners have made a beeline for the border, abandoning the ranch and leaving the girls to fend for themselves. And further up the corporate ladder, we've got Russian mafia investors targeting their corporate shills while in Washington, various Senators are wheeling and dealing with every ounce of corruption and debauchery they can muster.
Oblivious to the political, corporate and mafia turmoil, Steve keeps his head on his shoulders and takes an interest in the girls at the Hen House and, with the utmost respect for the law and the US coffers, seizes the ranch assets. Unfortunately, the more tenacious Steve is with his Dudley Do-Right honesty, the more attention his mission is getting from the media and it doesn't take long before every local and national network is camped out at the Hen House looking for a story.
What will Steve do? What will the Hen House girls do? What will the IRS do? What will Congress do with this albatross of debauchery around their necks, er, **cks? What will Gregor the Russian do? But above all, what will the media do, and especially, the in-your-face, Diane Sawyer wannabe, Nicki Daniels?
Written by David Landsberg, everything is fair game and nothing is off limits in SEX TAX. Hitting every hot button topic in the economic and political zeitgeist, Landsberg intricately weaves all the players together in a script that is, for the most part, well crafted and defined. While the multiplicity of characters at times makes it tough keeping the scorecard, the one element that never falters is his ability to hone in on and exaggerate recognizable stereotypes in story and character, and creating lampooning humor, something that is due in large part to some fun performances starting with John Livingston.
A recognizable face for many, I am most familiar with Livingston's appearances on dramatic episodic television like Bones, JAG, The Closer and even back to Murder, She Wrote. A genuinely nice guy, Livingston is perfectly cast as Steve Billings. There is not a moment you doubt his sincerity and honesty while the world around him is going to hell in a hand basket. Livingston truly makes us believe one of Steve's key philosophies, "I don't care what you think. I care what I think." He is a delight to watch and his chemistry is palpable, from the embarrassing love and desire for grandchildren showered on him by his parents to the sultry attempts at seduction by Babs and the rest of the hens to Nicki's over-zealous "I want a baby" hints at hook-up." Smooth, unflappable and likeable. Were Livingston not this capable and grounded in his performance, the film would have fallen flat just by the very nature of chaos around him.
When it comes to tv reporter Nicki Daniels, Erin Cardillo has all the hallmarks of Rita Wilson (not to mention strong facial resemblance) in exuberant comedic mode as in Jewtopia or even, When Harry Met Sally. Like Livingston, Daniels calls on her also strong episodic television background with both comedy and drama roots (I'm familiar with her work in Bones and Castle as well as The Suite Life on Deck). Her comedic timing here is impeccable and she works her character arc so that by film's end, the audience, like Steve, find her likeable.
Seeing Monte Markham still hitting the hammy marks is always a joy as is Jay Thomas, although the stronger performance comes from Markham as Mr. Billings. Thomas feels like a fish out of water and not a good fit for the role of Charles Taylor. So used to seeing Eric Pierpoint in dramatic mode, and usually as military or high ranking politician, while not surprised to see him as Congressman Hayden, the depth and breadth of insane hilarity is refreshingly fun and funny. Although the mind immediately thinks of Sgt. Al Powell or Carl Winslow when Reginald VelJohnson appears on screen, as the hapless IRS supervisor Merle, he is again a likeable stalwart supporting player. Always a joy is Lin Shaye and although a small part, as attorney Lydia Friedman, she does her Nancy Grace bullying best to great aplomb. I can never get enough of Carlos Alazraqui and here, as Branson, is no different.
For a directorial feature film debut, John Borges does an admirable job of wrangling not only a massive cast of characters but the comedy. Although the film starts off with some uneven editing and pacing, he eventually finds his footing by about the 50 minute mark with everything gelling and coming together, leading up to a surprisingly sweet ending. Initial editing and pacing has a choppy uncertainty to it as if he wasn't quite sure how to introduce the characters and sub-plots or in what order. That uncertainty is unsettling and doesn't lend itself to a cohesive comedic thread, giving more of a sketch sensibility at the outset. But, as indicated, Borges eventually does find his way into an editing rhythm that captures and celebrates the absurdness of the situation at hand.
Bringing in Mark Woods as cinematographer was a smart move on the part of the producers. Given his commercial background, he knows how to lens from both a story and visual point, abilities that bode well with comedy of this nature and the brevity of some of the "sketch" oriented scenes. Woods creates a nice lighting palette and really gets to show his stuff when lensing the "Tantric room" in the Hen House. Some really beautiful work there.
SEX TAX. Where prostitution meets politics, everyone gets shafted and truth is funnier than fiction. This is one movie ticket I won't mind paying tax on.
Directed by John Borges
Written by David Landsberg
Cast: John Livingston, Erin Cardillo, Jay Thomas, Eric Pierpoint, Reginald VelJohnson,
Lin Shaye, Carlos Alazraqui, Monte Markham
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