It's painful to watch strong actors flailing and exerting themselves in service to a weak script. But that's what Love Ranch is: two hours of watching Oscar winners Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci huff and puff, trying to breathe life into this sad, sour enterprise.
Set in mid-1970s Reno, Love Ranch has a throwback feel to the kind of boxing dramas that starred people like Joan Crawford and John Garfield in the 1940s. The tough broad in the bad marriage with the low-life hustler falls for the unlikely hunk of a boxer. You get the picture.
Except in this version, directed by Taylor Hackford from a florid Mark Jacobson script, it's also an age thing -- and it's set against the hard-dollar environment of legalized prostitution, at a brothel outside Reno.
Based on a true story, Love Ranch is set at one of Reno's first legal brothels, run by the husband-wife team of Charlie and Grace Bon Tempo (Mirren and Pesci) -- or Charlie Good Times, as he calls himself. But all is not sanguine in the Bon Tempo's marriage.
Grace is a retired whore who enjoys her role as madam, while Charlie is constantly looking for his next big score, the one that will finally grant him the air of legitimacy this son of Jersey so desperately craves. But while Grace rules the Love Ranch with an iron fist, Charlie is happily banging the merchandise when and wherever he feels like.
One day, Charlie takes Grace to a local gym where he introduces her to Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), an Argentine heavyweight whose contract Charlie has won in a poker game. Then Charlie convinces Grace to be Bruza's manager, because Charlie's criminal record prohibits him from doing so. And Bruza, he is convinced, has the goods to take on Muhammad Ali, who he's already fought once, to a respectable conclusion.
Bruza has eyes for Grace, despite what must be a 20-to-30-year age difference. He also sees how badly Charlie treats Grace and offers to take her away from Charlie and start her afresh. But if things were that easy, there would be no movie.
Not that Hackford has put together much of one here. He wants the actors to play it straight, but gives them risible lines to recite. Pesci and Mirren play the emotions truthfully, but the overheated nature of the script keeps undercutting them. Peris-Mencheta is a good-looking kid, but he's struggling with English -- and not very well-written English at that.
Much has been made about Mirren as the proud, aging sex symbol, but there's a difference between her playing women of a certain age who still have urges and older women suddenly discovering that they're attractive to younger men. That's a trope that Mirren has about worn out -- and it's insulting to her, as well. She is, after all, a sexy older woman. Why does she need to keep perpetuating the stereotype that older women need younger men to remind them they're still attractive?
Love Ranch is neither a nostalgic look back at a simpler time nor a modern take on emerging or changing sexual standards. Instead, it's just another tawdry soap opera, tarted up with bigger names in hopes of lending it unearned legitimacy.
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