The romantic triangle never rests, and in the case of “Love Ranch,” it delivers neither heat nor deeper resonance despite a juicy, fact-based story about brothel owners, a heavyweight boxer and a stew of lethal jealousies and uncontainable desires.
A contrived story, along with a wrongheaded attempt to turn its tawdry subject matter into operatic tragedy, dooms this movie’s ability to triumph as pulpy fun, or blazing noir, or an insight into bordello life, or a portrait of a smart madam.
Instead, we have a misfire that plays like a muddle of all these unrealized possibilities.
Directed by Taylor Hackford and inspired by events that occurred at Nevada’s Mustang Ranch, this 1970s-set melodrama features the fictional Charlie and Grace Bontempo, husband-and-wife owners of the Love Ranch, one of Nevada’s first licensed brothels. Charlie (Joe Pesci) is a crude, corrupt, philandering, cowboy-styled sleazeball.
Grace (Helen Mirren) is a tough but decent madam with buried passions and a cancer diagnosis. Translation: Escape is deserved and pending.
Enter Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), the young Argentinean boxer whom Charlie, having ventured into fight promotion, deems his ticket to glory. Grace and Armando become lovers and eventually run off, prompting Charlie’s wrath.
The film, whose plot threads include a campaign to shut down the ranch, isn’t boring. The ranch’s resemblance to a prison, tacky pink notwithstanding, is intriguing.
But the movie doesn’t know what to do with such ingredients. Lacking thematic and tonal focus, it is mostly soap and surfaces.
Hackford, whose credits include “Ray” and “The Devil’s Advocate,” has never demonstrated visionary qualities, but here, he and screenwriter Mark Jacobson give larger-than-life treatment to characters who don’t remotely earn it and whose dilemmas we can’t begin to buy.
Efforts to take the lovers into mythic terrain, complete with an existential twang on the soundtrack and shots of changeable skies, fail. The pivotal boxing match collapses into sentimentality.
Hackford, who is married to Mirren, spotlights the actress, and she’s indeed impressive. But handed a character who is given a predicament but no real psychological center, Mirren can’t work magic. Going overboard to make Grace sympathetic — besides having cancer, she is married to Pesci’s Charlie, who’s presented as a one-note boor — the filmmakers don’t allow her to be truly interesting.
Peris-Mencheta’s Armando, meanwhile, who is saddled with even less-believable mortality issues, is no match for Mirren’s Grace, passion-wise.
The cast also includes Gina Gershon, wasted as a wisecracking hooker.
Starring Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Gina Gershon
Written by Mark Jacobson
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Running time 1 hour 57 minutes