Love Ranch: movie review

Helen Mirren stars in 'Love Ranch,' a slow tawdry drama about a husband and wife who run a legalized brothel in 1970s Nevada.

What a difference a marriage makes. In Helen Mirren’s most recent triumph, “The Last Station,” she played the wife of Christopher Plummer’s Leo Tolstoy, and even though the marital union was fraught, the acting was amazing and the movie was marvelous.

Her latest movie, “Love Ranch,” set in Nevada in the 1970s, isn’t just a comedown, it’s a plummet without a parachute.

Mirren plays Grace, wife and business partner of Joe Pesci’s Charlie Bontempo, the owner of a legalized brothel. The couple is based on Joe and Sally Conforte and their notorious Mustang Ranch. It’s a tawdry movie about a tawdry business.

This is the first film that director Taylor Hackford has made with Mirren, his wife, since “White Nights” back in 1985. His usual hypercharged stylistics – on display, most recently, in “Ray” – are completely absent here. The film is so lethargic, and the cinematography so washed-out, that it wilts as you’re watching it.

Maybe Hackford, and his screenwriter Mark Jacobson, were attempting to convey the dullness of vice. If so, they vastly overcorrected. But what about the dullness of the performances?

For those of us who admire Mirren – and is there anyone who doesn’t? – seeing her stranded in this mediocrity is painful. And then there’s the Joe Pesci problem. I suppose it’s unfair to compare him to Plummer as a costar, but, really, Mirren deserves better.

I suppose Pesci does, too – after all, he was memorably powerful in “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” He knows how to play sleaze. But in “Love Ranch” he’s an in-your-face hollerer who barely registers his costar. He closes Mirren out. When Charlie, for the umpteenth time, plays around with one of his prostitutes, you don’t feel sorry for Grace (as you are supposed to). You feel good for her. Who needs him?

The only vaguely interesting aspect to this film is the subplot involving a past-his-prime Argentinian heavyweight owned by Charlie. Armando Bruza (a nice Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is based on Oscar Bonavena, who became a romantic attraction for Sally Conforte. Armando is like a great big shaggy kid, and when Charlie puts Grace in charge of his training, the inevitable ensues.

Grace is wised up enough to know that Armando is leading her on for ulterior motives, but, behold, their romance turns out to be the real deal. Her rapt astonishment at this turn of events represents the film’s only genuine acting highlight.

The only directorial highlight is the boxing match where Armando squares off against an Ali-like opponent. Hackford seems to relish the excitement of filmmaking in this scene. Once it ends, we’re plunked squarely back in the land of lethargy.

There’s an easy-laugh moment I wish the filmmakers had resisted. At one point when Grace is acting up, Charlie blurts out, “Who do you think you are, the queen of England?” (I’ve cleaned it up a bit). That line only serves to remind us how far the mighty have fallen. Grade: D+ (Rated R for sexual content, pervasive language, and some violence.)

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