On paper, the odd-couple pairing of Oscar winners Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci placed in the hands of accomplished director — and Mirren’s husband — Taylor Hackford can’t help but pique interest. Add an inspired-by-true-events, disco-era story involving sex, passion, crime and politics, slap on the juicy title “Love Ranch” and things sound even more surefire.
So what went wrong?
The short answer is: just about everything, including those very elements that initially entice. The grand Mirren is, truth be told, miscast and Pesci is misdirected as Grace and Charlie Bontempo, the long-married proprietors of one of America’s first legalized brothels, the Love Ranch (characters and Reno-area venue based on the actual Mustang Ranch).
And, although the film’s press notes declare helmer Hackford, whose resume includes such hits as “An Officer and a Gentleman” and " Ray,” had an “immediate connection” to the sensationalistic material, he shows little cinematic feel for it. As a result, the movie generates minimal authentic sexual or dramatic heat despite its kicks-for-sale setting and panoply of built-in moral and emotional conflicts. And, c’mon, it’s 1976 — where’s that kicky Top 40 soundtrack?
The script by author and journalist Mark Jacobson, which picks up as Grace and Charlie’s relationship and career are about to hit a long-simmering series of speed bumps, is another culprit here, filled with too many ham-fisted interactions and some painful dialogue. Instead of shaping and tempering Jacobson’s at times clichéd, overheated writing, Hackford tends to underscore it, which, in turn, makes it harder for the actors to shade their larger-than-life characters.
To that end, Mirren valiantly soldiers through (even if she’s derailed by corny speeches about her dearly departed hooker mom), while the bewigged, F-bomb-hurling Pesci is often so aggressively unchecked it’s like watching a “Saturday Night Live” parody of, well, Joe Pesci.
As Armando Bruza, an Argentine boxing champ whose flagging career the entrepreneurial Charlie tries to revive, Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta, though physically imposing, can’t quite sell his character’s many highly loaded emotive moments. Bruza’s eventual May-December romance with Grace, who also becomes his manager (don’t ask), is unconvincingly played, especially with its heaped-on specter of fatality. And the less one analyzes the film’s preposterous, lovers-on-the-lam third act, the better.
As for the Love Ranch itself, it’s a depressing, appropriately tacky joint, staffed by a one-dimensional group of working girls (adequately played by Gina Gershon, Scout Taylor-Compton, Elise Neal, Taryn Manning and others). Like this movie, the place may draw in the susceptible but is probably better left unvisited.