It’s no wonder that every job opening worth filling typically requires years and years of previous experience in a related position. Any other qualification or shortcoming an applicant might have is trumped by experience, because experience definitively tells employers that the applicant can do the job. This reality translates to cinema very well. Aging actors who work consistently are rare for obvious reasons, but these veteran thespians usually turn in a nuanced and multidimensional performance that’s sure to impress all who watch. Love Ranch offers that benefit to its audiences with its leading lady, Helen Mirren. Unfortunately, her performance is mired in a forced plot and lackluster writing.
Based on a true story surrounding the events of the first legal brothel in Nevada, Love Ranch follows Grace (Helen Mirren) and Charlie (Joe Pesci) Bontempo who own and operate the Love Ranch, with its stable of beautiful women for sale, including Bai Ling, Gina Gershon and Taryn Manning. While Grace is down to earth and is the de facto business side of the operation, Charlie is the dreamer who continually pushes the two into new ventures. His latest idea is to bring marquis boxing back to Nevada by sponsoring world famous heavyweight boxer Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and having him train on the Love Ranch compound with Grace as his manager. A relationship blossoms between Grace and Bruza as they spend more time together, allowing Grace to discover her self-worth and find the love that has always been missing from her life. She’s married to Charlie, however, and she must decide if leaving him is worth facing his violent temper.
Helen Mirren is one of those actresses that audiences can’t help but love watching. It doesn’t really matter what the role is or the character’s actions; it’s just fun to see Mirren become this other person. That joy is further enhanced when Mirren transforms again as her character changes along the journey of the film. It’s wonderful to see Mirren’s Grace turn from long-suffering and impervious to genuinely happy and vulnerable. Costar Joe Pesci helps frame Mirren’s performance with a solid effort of his own, but there’s something all too familiar about his ruthless, violent character that seems to admit that Pesci isn’t necessarily being challenged here. Admittedly, some performance necessities appear to be beyond Pesci’s range, like the sense of loss and betrayal he’s supposed to feel and show when he learns about Grace and Bruza. Fortunately, Pesci still gets the point across.
Sergio Peris-Mencheta gives the most surprising performance of the cast even though he’s a newcomer to American cinema. One particular scene where Bruza confesses his past to Grace feels as honest and real as acting can get. Peris-Mencheta’s performance is doubly impressive since he was acting in English, which is still a very foreign language for him.
Despite these performances that range from adequate to very good, the film is hampered by subplots that don’t seem necessary to the main story. For instance, the Love Ranch is protested by a religious group and there’s even a brief standoff at the compound, but that’s as far as this story element goes. There’s also a bit of infighting within the group of prostitutes that doesn’t get resolved either. It seemed like the filmmakers were torn between telling the main story about the love triangle and telling a story that felt historically true.
There are also a few issues with the dialog and character motivations. Characters are constantly recapping information the audience already learned from a different scene. Clichés, like “I’ve been dying for years; you just never noticed” also pop up now and again, giving the film an old-fashioned feel that probably wasn’t intended. Finally, while it’s refreshing to see a younger man with an older woman, it’s never clearly explained why Bruza is attracted to Grace at all.
It’s worth noting that Helen Mirren has a mildly steamy love scene. The idea of that might put some people off, but the scene works just fine on every level and doesn’t feel ironic. So while its story and writing won’t necessarily win anyone over, Love Ranch still manages to craft something unique and interesting that proves that sexuality is not reserved for the young alone.