Helen Mirren plays a madam with a heart of gold in “Love Ranch,” a tawdry look at the early days of Nevada’s legalized brothel business that plays more like Lifetime fodder than the Martin Scorsese pics that serve as its model. Collaborating with his wife for the first time since 1985’s “White Nights,” “Ray” director Taylor Hackford gives Mirren the only real character in an ensemble filled with types (Joe Pesci as her hot-headed husband, Gina Gershon in a role that makes her “Showgirls” perf feel well-rounded). Though younger auds can find livelier competish on cable, sexy subject should serve “Ranch” well in ancillary.
Inspired by Mustang Ranch owners Joe and Sally Conforte, whose world-famous sex business faced a major setback in 1976 after Joe’s decision to sign boxing legend Oscar Bonavena inadvertently introduced a romantic rival to the equation, writer Mark Jacobson leverages the more tragic aspects of that story to create a sudsy, romance novel-like love triangle involving cigar-chomping Charlie Bontempo (Pesci), his wife, Grace (Mirren), and an Argentinian prizefighter named Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).
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Charlie is not only powerful but also prone to violence, with a local sheriff (Gil Birmingham) on the payroll and plenty of blackmail material available to cover up any messes that arise. Pesci, who attempts a Southern accent for the first few scenes but quickly relapses into goombah mode, plays Charlie as a swaggering, no-class type who overcompensates for physical shortcomings by burning his cigars with $100 bills and collecting freebies from his hookers. Keeping Grace in check, he kids, “Who do you think you are, the queen of fucking England?” — a sly wink at how far Grace (seen here ironing lingerie with curlers in her hair) is from Mirren’s role in “The Queen.”
Grace has long tolerated her husband’s infidelity. She’s busy enough as it is, handling the books and keeping her 25 prostitutes from clawing one another’s eyes out (which makes for Mirren’s showiest scene) to worry about Charlie’s antics. When Grace’s doctor diagnoses cancer and predictsthat she has six months to live, she keeps the news to herself (with the illness essentially serving to garner sympathy and justify her fling). Managing Bruza may be just another one of her husband’s crazy schemes, but it brings a rare chance for romance to a tough-as-nails type whose own marriage is strictly business.
As a boxing fan, Hackford (who produced the Muhammad Ali docu “When We Were Kings”) takes greater interest in Bruza’s line of work than that of the Bontempos. He includes only two bordello business scenes: The first serves as a lively opener, introducing several key characters as they try to subdue a rowdy customer, while the second offers mild amusement, with a grotesquely overweight john expiring in the act (auds wanting more will have better luck with HBO’s “Cathouse”). When it comes time for Bruza’s big bout, however, Hackford relishes the challenge and shoots the match as if Ali himself were fighting.
This scene serves to cement Bruza’s relationship with Grace, pushing her into his arms for the film’s soapy final stretch — one whose violent conclusion and awkward voiceover epilogue lack the intended emotional punch. A journalist by day, Jacobson has attempted to fashion a grand, operatic script about how these dreamers destroyed their own self-made empire, but the world feels small and overly predictable. Apart from its rump-shaking neon sign, the Love Ranch looks like a bright pink concentration camp, its mobile-home quarters fenced in and overlooked by a guard turret.
In a sense, Mirren is the queen of this world, and Hackford gives her no shortage of scenes in which to bring Grace to life (her employees, by contrast, are introduced via a montage of high-heeled shoes, with only a few getting enough lines to make more of their characters). Apart from Mirren, Spanish actor Peris-Mencheta reps the only remotely fresh casting decision, crossing Javier Bardem’s smoldering charm with the vulnerable, oversized puppy appeal of Andre the Giant.
Gershon, Bai Ling and Taryn Manning (“Hustle and Flow”) all make lazy choices to play middle-of-nowhere hookers, while Pesci has simply added cowboy boots to his earlier “Goodfellas” and “Casino” characters (at one point, Gershon even mocks his accidental New Jersey accent). Kieran McGuigan captures a period feel with Panavision’s Genesis digital camera, while New Mexico locations double for nearly everything outside Reno city limits.