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Love Ranch

In Helen Mirren's latest film, prostitution is the name of the game.

Love Ranch (R)

En español  |  “Inspired by a true story,” Love Ranch parallels real-life events that took place in the mid-1970s at the Mustang Ranch near Reno, Nevada's first legal brothel. So why, as the film unfolds on the big screen, did I find myself having a hard time buying into any of it? 

Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci play Grace and Charlie Bontempo, stand-ins for the Ranch’s real-life owners, Sally and Joe Conforte. In the film, the couple’s marriage is pretty much a business affair. Grace, the daughter of a prostitute, is the financial brains behind the brothel; she keeps two sets of books and the hookers happy. Charlie, like most of Pesci’s characters, is a blowhard, a violence-prone little guy who smokes his cigars wrapped in Benjamins and dreams of one day being a world-famous boxing promoter. To that end, Charlie recruits a washed-up Argentinean heavyweight named Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Charlie cajoles Grace into managing Bruza, who trains at the Love Ranch while Charlie sets up the big match. Who would believe that Bruza’s appearance on the scene would spark a romantic triangle involving Grace, Bruza, and Charlie that ends in tragedy? Alas, that’s what happened in real life—but you just don’t believe the movie.

Love Ranch was written by journalist Mark Jacobson and directed by Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray), who happens to be Helen Mirren’s husband.  The two haven’t worked together since 1985, when they met on White Nights. Clearly, Hackford had a lot to do with convincing her to take the role.  It’s not that Helen Mirren couldn’t, in theory, do a great job playing the sassy powerhouse Grace/Sally.  But the coupling of her with Peris-Mencheta, a blank-eyed lug of a guy, is all wrong. Their chemistry is nonexistent. Perhaps in trying hard to make the pairing work, Mirren offers up a performance that feels forced from start to finish.

As for the other actors: Pesci is Pesci, which is to say he plays a stereotypical gangster who, minutes into the film, abandons the wild-West accent he’s attempting and slips sloppily into Jersey tawk. The working girls—played by Gina Gershon, Niki Crawford, Taryn Manning, among others—are oddly colorless and unmemorable. And the setting of the Ranch is bleak, resembling a low-lying cellblock surrounded by barbed wire in the middle of the desert, rather than the wild party palace you’d imagine a legalized brothel in Nevada in the 1970s would be. And as for period details, there’s not a disco ball in sight.

On paper, the story behind the Mustang Ranch intrigues—especially when you throw in legends like Mirren and Pesci, and a love triangle to boot.  But true or not, such a preposterous story demands great performances and deft direction to make it believable. Hackford, Mirren, and Pesci simply don’t deliver—which is too bad, because, like the Mustang Ranch itself, there was once the promise of huge success.