- Directed by Taylor Hackford
- Written by Mark Jacobson
- Starring: Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci and Sergio Peris-Mencheta
- Classification: 18A
Having won an Oscar for playing a queen ( The Queen) and earning another nomination for her role as a Russian countess ( The Last Station), Helen Mirren descends to playing a brassy American brothel keeper in Love Ranch. In the new film by her director-husband Taylor Hackford ( Ray), Mirren walks with a cane, manages 25 temperamental hookers and tolerates her puffed-up philandering husband (Joe Pesci).
In theory, it had all the signs of a ripe Mirren performance, but she's undone by a weak script that leaves her flailing like an Olympic swimmer in a pool full of jelly. Suggestive of far too many "inspired by a true story" movies of the week, Love Ranch bounces between tongue-in-cheek wackiness and soapy melodrama while rarely hitting a true note.
The screenplay, by journalist Mark Jacobson, is a fictionalized version of the story of Sally and Joe Conforte, who ran the first legal brothel in the United States near Reno, Nev. In the mid-seventies, Joe decided he wanted to invest in a boxer, which led to him inviting the ill-fated Oscar Bonavena to become part of their lives. Here are all the ingredients for a ripe pulp story: a brothel setting, a champion contender and an illicit love affair that leads to tragedy in the desert.
The movie changes names: Mirren here is Grace Bontempo, with Pesci as her husband, Charlie, and Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta as the Latin brawler, named Armando Bruza. There are also a few needless dramatic embellishments to suggest a fall from a tawdry paradise. Early scenes, including the 1976 New Year's Eve celebrations, emphasize the 24-hour party people aspect of brothel life, in which even violent customers meet with a united front. The working girls include Gina Gershon, Bai Ling, Taryn Manning ( Hustle and Flow) and Scout Taylor-Compton, but the performances are little more than cameos.
As Charlie, Pesci recycles his many yappy gangster roles - albeit this time out he's a crook who dresses in cowboy duds. He cheats on taxes and has the local sheriff in his pocket. He's also a sleazeball who enjoys free samples from the women in his employ. In short, we don't have much ambiguity about where our sympathies are supposed to lie. When Grace attempts to tell him about the news she's recently received from the doctor, he's too preoccupied to listen.
Everything changes when he brings home the big handsome boy-man Bruza and tells Grace she's now a boxing manager. Because Charlie has a criminal record, he can't sign on for the job himself. Can she really be blamed for enjoying having her own big teddy bear to play with? Peris-Mencheta, with his lopsided clown face, has a charming comic pathos, and certainly he's the freshest casting here.
In a typical case of ill-conceived dramatic embellishment, the script provides each of the lovers a health crisis to contend with, to give them something in common apart from a mutual dislike of Charlie.
First though, there's the big boxing match that Charlie has arranged, which he hopes will give Bruza a shot at the heavyweight title.
Hackford, who produced the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings, knows boxing and the well-shot early rounds of Bruza's would-be comeback fight are some of the movie's best, cleanly shot and fast and brutal. Still, it seemed a shame Hackford couldn't combine his own two biggest strengths: It would have been more fun to watch Mirren slugging it out in the ring, instead of contending with the wet paper bag of a script.