Helen Mirren married director Taylor Hackford in 1997; the two fell in love on the set of White Nights (1985), their first film together. Love Ranch, their second collaboration in 25 years, should be grounds for divorce.
Written and executive-produced by journalist (and Hackford pal) Mark Jacobson, Love Ranch is based on the real-life Joe and Sally Conforte, married owners of Nevada’s Mustang Ranch, the first legalized brothel in the U.S. Renamed Charlie and Grace Bontempo (and played by Joe Pesci and Mirren), the proprietors are first seen welcoming in 1976 at their whorehouse outside Reno, as Foghat blares, ice sculptures melt, a sociopathic john is eighty-sixed, and Mirren’s voiceover, an uneven Americanized squawk, announces: “Selling love will make you rich.”
The dialogue that follows is often more execrable (“I hurt people who love me!”), though one of Charlie’s enraged retorts to Grace—”Who do you think you are—the queen of fuckin’ England?”—passes as a competent in-joke (similarly, the glasses Grace wears seem exact replicas of the unflattering Silver Jubilee–era spectacles Mirren sported in The Queen). The political, cultural, and sexual debates surrounding the legalization of prostitution are dealt with cursorily, relegated to a few brief scenes of Bible thumpers waving placards so as not to distract us from ogling Love Ranchers Gina Gershon, Bai Ling, and Taryn Manning in Me Decade fetish wear as they rassle each other to the ground.
Rather than being a film about a specific time, milieu, place (Albuquerque is a frequent stand-in for Nevada), or ethical quandary, Love Ranch focuses instead on the least provocative topic: the Bontempos’ marital meltdown. Hitched to Charlie for 22 years, Grace stoically endures both her infertile, former yardbird husband’s cavorting with the employees and her cancer diagnosis, finding solace in Keely Smith records on the hi-fi. She will soon find further diversion in Charlie’s latest purchase, boxer Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a hunky Argentinean heavyweight whom she is asked to manage. The madam and the pugilist, 30 years her junior, do it, fleeing Charlie’s wrath in Donner Pass. “Caníbalismo? Here?” Armando responds after Grace tells him the history of their hideaway. “We still eat each other!” he sobs before revealing the melodrama he left behind in Buenos Aires.
Any performer, even a deity (and Dame) like Mirren, would struggle mightily to enliven a script this deadly. Though Peris-Mencheta, in his first U.S. film, confuses constant, manic motion and overemoting for acting, he at least registers as a lively presence onscreen; Pesci and Mirren appear desperate just to get through the whole awful production. Hackford’s pacing throughout is continuously off, with scenes extending several beats too long, his two leads adrift and bored. Not counting a cameo in 2006’s The Good Shepherd, this is Pesci’s first screen role in 12 years; he emerged from semi-retirement only to pantomime the short-fused half-pints of his past.
The more riveting movie is the one that plays in your head as you imagine how Hackford talked Mirren into doing Love Ranch (he may have appealed to her predilection for the perverse; see Lee Daniels’s Shadowboxer). She may look and sound miserable in her husband’s film, but stumping for Love Ranch on talk shows and in magazine profiles/bathtub exposés, Mirren gives one of her best performances yet.