Helen Mirren is no stranger to slumming (does anyone remember a pornographic historical abortion called Caligula?), but after winning an Academy Award for playing the Queen of England, she does her loyal subjects no favors stooping to the lurid role of a salty Nevada madam with Dolly Parton’s hair in the cheesy Love Ranch. Equally lamentable is the way it wastes the skills of her husband, director Taylor Hackford, whom she met on the unforgettable Mikhail Baryshnikov vehicle White Nights in 1985. Could this sleazy, amateurish mess be the work of the same man who directed An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray, the 2004 Ray Charles biography that won an Oscar for Jamie Foxx? Oh, well, charity begins at home, and this act of charity could inspire life in a homeless shelter.
Even Helen Mirren on a bad day is better than nine out of ten American film queens polluting movie screens on any given Sunday, but really, this is one time she should have stayed in bed.
The title refers to the Mustang Ranch, the first legal brothel in the U.S., near Reno. The three major characters in the uncharacteristic, follow-the-dots screenplay are the runty, raspy, good-for-nothing Joe Conforte (the tiresome Joe Pesci, chewing the scenery in a Liberace wig); his wife, Sally (Mirren); and world-class Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena (Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta). The brains of the outfit is Sally, the daughter of a prostitute whose mama drilled into her head from childhood one tenet to live by: “Selling love will make you rich. Just don’t put your heart in it.” After she is diagnosed with cancer, Sally makes the mistake of ignoring her own motto and falling for the hunky Bonavena, setting off a chain of events that ends with whoremaster, swindler and tax-cheating husband Joe shooting the boxer to death in 1976. From such toxic soil grows a barren tale of double crosses, betrayals and retribution in which titillation is smothered by boredom.
Since the salient facts about the Mustang Ranch and its inhabitants are a matter of public record, it makes no sense that the names have all been changed to protect-the innocent? Sally Conforte is now called Grace Bontempo, her husband, Joe, is Charlie, and the murdered Oscar Bonavena has been assigned the moniker Armando “Wild Bill” Bruza. The acting is serviceable, but it’s Helen Mirren you applaud. Knocking the whores to the floor and stepping on their necks with her high heels, she delivers a potty-mouthed performance of spirited if wasted gusto. In a big, brassy wedding cake of a hairdo, hobbling on a cane for support and cussing like a Marseilles fisherman with a vocabulary filthy as an open sewer, she juggles the books to cheat the I.R.S., battles the local church groups and family-protection leagues and fornicates like an oversexed gerbil. She pretty much controls the film, but that’s no compliment. It’s a shame she didn’t control the script, too. Then a jokey, embarrassing line like “Who do you think you are? The queen of fucking England?” would have undoubtedly been vetoed. The great Helen Mirren deserves better. Even Helen Mirren on a bad day is better than nine out of ten American film queens polluting movie screens on any given Sunday, but really, this is one time she should have stayed in bed. I know it was directed by her husband, but Love Ranch should, for archival purposes, be called What I Did for Love.
Running time 117 minutes
Written by Mark Jacobson
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Starring Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Gina Gershon, Sergio Peris-Mencheta
1 Eyeball out of 4