In the ‘70s, Joe and Susan Conforte ran an infamous legal brothel in Reno, Nevada called the Mustang Ranch. In the film inspired by their lives, they’ve been renamed Charlie (Joe Pesci) and Grace Bontempo (Helen Mirren), and their business redubbed the Love Ranch.
Set in 1976, Love Ranch opens on a New Year’s party that could have come straight out of Boogie Nights. But Taylor Hackford’s movie doesn’t maintain much sense of the time period, and instead feels disconnected from any particular era. The brothel itself is also never (forgive the pun) fleshed out. When Grace is called away from the party to deal with a customer who is getting rough with one of her girls, we’re offered a glimpse of the prostitutes’ helplessness. But the only other scene showing a prostitute at work is played for laughs. None of the girls is very memorable, and the place feels more like a dysfunctional sorority house than a functioning bordello.
Against this backdrop, Love Ranch sets up a love triangle involving the Bontempos and Argentinean boxer Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Ever scheming, Charlie brings Bruza to the ranch in an attempt to hit a big payday through a heavyweight fight. Instead he introduces Bruza to Grace, both broken people who go on to start an affair in a last, desperate attempt to find love.
But even as she seeks true passion outside her marriage, Grace maintains a certain distance from the concept. The daughter of a prostitute, she’s been a madam her entire adult life and so feels understandably cynical regarding romance. She’s so imperious at times, that Charlie is moved to ask, “Who do you think you are, the queen of fucking England?” While that is a funny nod to Mirren’s previous roles, it also serves as an unfortunate reminder that this part is a less than perfect fit for her. Early on, when Grace learns she has cancer, she reacts with what can only be described as a stiff upper lip. The illness seems just one more test put to her by Mark Jacobson’s script, which pushes Mirren’s role toward a fortitude that feels more aristocratic British rather working class American.
Pesci, on the other hand, is cast perfectly as Charlie. At the beginning of Love Ranch, it seems Charlie may be yet another version of Pesci’s famous comic persona (see: Home Alone or My Cousin Vinny). But it soon becomes clear that this character draws on Pesci’s other half, the psychopath of Casino and Goodfellas. Violence lurks just beneath his surface, erupting in a handful of scenes with startling ferocity.
Still, though Grace is familiar with Charlie’s anger, she is never actually threatened by it. In one case, when Charlie angrily picks up a phone, he seems ready to hit Grace with it. Oddly enough, she seems more concerned about the well being of the phone, and it becomes clear that his brutality is never directed at Grace. This pattern—his menace undone by her reserve—repeats throughout the film. Every time Charlie starts to ramp up, Grace disarms him so easily that the tension deflates.
The relationship between Charlie and Grace should anchor the film, but instead it undermines it. Even though their courtship is often charming, the lack of investment in Grace’s marriage defuses the impact of the infidelity, leaving Love Ranch a passionless exercise.