Movie review: Madame Mirren’s ‘Love Ranch’ fails to round up passion

Ed Symkus

After sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, “Love Ranch,” Taylor Hackford’s first film since “Ray,” finally gets a release. But it’s easy to see why distributors had so many second thoughts on whether audiences would want to see it.

Based loosely on the story of Joe and Sally Conforte, whose Mustang Ranch was the first legal house of prostitution in Nevada, and on pro boxer Oscar Bonavena, whose demise came about after hints of an affair with Sally, the film is relatively soulless, depending instead on great globs of weak melodrama.

Set in 1976 Reno, it gets down to business by introducing Grace and Charlie Bontempo (Hackford’s wife, Helen Mirren, and Joe Pesci) and establishing their situations. She runs the desert bordello, handling the paperwork, making the rules, breaking up squabbles among her working girls. He’s a loose cannon, a fast-talker who devises scheme after scheme, pays off customers’ debts, and runs around with other women.

She knows about it all, is fed up with his behavior, and tells him so, but he blasts her with his fiery temper whenever she broaches the issue.

You immediately have to wonder what she sees in this guy, and you have to suspend your disbelief at her immense capacity for forgiveness. Her strongest reaction to his carryings-on is something akin to: “Oh, Charlie, not again.” And then it’s on to his next get-rich-quick plan: He buys Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a former big-shot boxer from Argentina that Charlie will manage, train and put on a trajectory for a title bout with Muhammad Ali.

Oh, wait, check that. Charlie is a convicted felon and isn’t allowed to manage a boxer. But no worries, Grace can do it.

That’s OK with Bruza, who finds Grace easy to look at. But it’s not OK with Grace, a tough cookie who stares Bruza down and says, “I’ve got 25 psychotic whores to manage. I can’t manage you.” Of course Grace has already shown that she melts upon hearing sweet words from Charlie, so it’s no surprise that the same thing happens when the sleazy Bruza tries the same approach. Charlie is a big-time hustler. Bruza might be his equal.

In due course, the script’s cliché filter falters. Grace isn’t just tired because she works too hard. It’s because there’s bad news from her doctor. And every time she tries to tell Charlie about it, a phone rings or he remembers there’s something he must do. When the action picks up a bit and turns to the boxing ring (where “the networks will be watching!”), the scenes are bloated with wild swings and slo-mo shots.

Worse, and even less believable, that tiredness and those wrinkles and dark rings on Grace’s face vanish when she starts thinking about going for a little hanky-panky with Bruza, after he looks her in the eye and burbles, “I don’t know why you stay with that little man. It could be just you and me.”

Mirren is decent in the role, although the most impressive thing about her performance is her spot-on American accent. Pesci once again shows a limited range, pretty much sticking with erratic mood swings, not much different from those during his gangster-role days in the ’80s and ’90s. Spanish actor Peris-Mencheta spends most of the film coming across as a conniving dummy.

Anyone looking for a movie about life on a brothel is going to be disappointed. All of that stuff remains in the background, while the lackluster story of Grace and Charlie and Bruza stays at the fore. Maybe if there was more than just a passing mention of Reno locals trying to pass a referendum on stopping prostitution in Nevada, the story might have offered something of interest. At least it wouldn’t be this dull.

LOVE RANCH (R for sexual content, language, violence) Cast includes Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci and Sergio Peris-Mencheta. Directed by Taylor Hackford. 1.5 stars out of 4.