Movie review: The soap-opera-in-a-brothel drama 'Love Ranch'

SLUMMING? Oscar winners Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren in
SLUMMING? Oscar winners Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren in "Ranch." (Richard Foreman/associated Press)
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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

There's a little inside joke at the beginning of "Love Ranch," a soap-operatic drama based on the real-life story of Nevada's first legally licensed brothel. Cranky whorehouse owner Charlie Bontempo (Joe Pesci) turns to his wife, Grace (Helen Mirren), and snarls, "Who do you think you are, the queen of [expletive] England?"

In context, it's a reference to Grace's somewhat more regal bearing. Her husband is a foulmouthed little tyrant who messes around with the staff, lights cigars with hundred-dollar bills and physically intimidates people who try to shut his business down. She, at least, has a little bit of class.

But the line is also a wink at Mirren's Oscar-winning turn in the title role of the 2006 movie "The Queen." Unfortunately, the reference only serves to snap us out of any willing suspension of disbelief at that point. It's a painful reminder as to how out of place the actress is in this made-for-basic-cable-caliber melodrama of sex and betrayal. With the exception of Mirren and Sergio Peris-Mencheta -- who plays an up-and-coming Argentine boxer whom Charlie sees as his next meal ticket, and with whom Grace begins a unlikely May-September romance -- the performances feel as phony as Pesci's hair, a shoe-polish black pompadour that looks like a small animal that curled up and died on his head.

Try though she might, Mirren can't save the hackneyed and singularly unerotic story, inspired by the experiences of Joe and Sally Conforte, who ran the Mustang Ranch brothel in the 1970s until the IRS shut it down for tax evasion. Directed by Taylor Hackford and written by Mark Jacobson, the tale of corruption, seduction, murder and, yes, terminal illness is straight out of "Days of Our Lives."

Not that Mirren gets much help from her supporting cast. Playing a cop on Charlie's payroll, Gil Birmingham has a look of perpetual embarrassment on his face. It could be a character choice -- after all, who would want to work for a guy like Charlie? -- but it reads as if the actor is wishing he hadn't taken his agent's phone call. As for the Love Ranch "girls" (a group that includes Chinese sexpot Bai Ling), the general level of acting is on a par with a Russ Meyer movie.

Then there's Gina Gershon. Playing the resident den mother of the prostitutes, she has the effect of making the film feel like "Showgirls" whenever she turns up. It's an awkward, if apt, comparison.

Like that 1995 disaster, "Love Ranch" is a toxic cocktail of unintended camp. Five years from now, it could be a hit on the midnight-movie circuit. Right now, it's just depressing.

Love Ranch 1/2 *

(117 minutes), rated R for pervasive obscenity, nudity, sex scenes and violence, is showing at area theaters.

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