Swing and a miss

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Dame Helen Mirren as a toughtalking Nevada brothel madam? We like to think our finest screen performers can play anyone. Mirren, whose career has encompassed the full spectrum of human behavior, from queens to gangster’s molls, is fully capable of tackling a character like the one in Love Ranch, co-starring Joe Pesci as her husband and partner in legalized flesh-peddling.

This specific character, however, is nearly unplayably false, as written by Mark Jacobson and directed by Taylor Hackford (Mirren’s husband). What could have been a juicy, pulpy noir, based loosely on the real-life 1976 Mustang Ranch love triangle involving Joe and Sally Conforte and Sally’s boxer paramour, instead has the dramatic consistency of rice milk.

It’s hard to fathom what Hackford had in mind half the time. Love Ranch begins as a comedy of bad manners, with Pesci chewing it up, spitting it out and chewing it up again as Charlie Bontempo, co-owner of the Love Ranch.

His latest get-rich-quick scheme involves the acquisition and training of an Argentine heavyweight, Armando (played by Spanish actor Sergio Peris- Mencheta). For an hour, Mirren’s long-suffering Grace Bontempo has little to do beyond long-suffer in relative silence, issue an occasional reprimand to one of the “girls” (depicted with all the gritty realism of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and wonder if Charlie’s dalliances will ever end. Then comes the noir part, when the boxer and the madam become professional associates, then personal ones, then runaways.

So it’s a boxing picture with hookers — how could that miss? Yet nothing in Love Ranch quite works, and only Mirren’s valiant efforts to convey something of this character’s inner life salvage bits and pieces of a protracted two-hour film. Charlie needs to be seductive and dangerous in roughly equal measure; the way Pesci lays into the threatened and actual violence, he’s a pain from moment one. There’s no surprise or discovery in the performance. Peris-Mencheta looks the part but struggles to humanize some pretty hoary clichés. Hackford tries a little of everything in terms of tone, but none of it sticks, and shooting the interiors with lighting as cruddy as Bucktown-era blaxploitation doesn’t add period flair. It adds cruddy lighting.

“Maybe I deserve the pain,” Armando says to Grace late in the game. Yes, but do we?

—MCT, Tribune Media Services Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com