There are two competing pop-culture images of Helen Mirren: The powdered gray matriarch in 2006's The Queen -- the role that won her an Oscar for playing the British monarch as an insular yet surprisingly wily and durable woman of the people -- and the other the bombshell caught sunbathing in a bikini, in a photograph that lit up the tabloids and suggested the actress, then 63, had not passed gently into menopause. Oscar or no, this Mirren was still the libertine who took the starch out of '70s British cinema and happily agreed to appear in Caligula.
There's more than a trace of Queen Elizabeth's pragmatism and wit in Mirren's turn in her new film Love Ranch, but director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman), her husband of 13 years (and partner for a decade and more before), gives fuller expression to her wild side. As Grace Bontempo, the brassy co-proprietor of a Nevada brothel circa 1976, Mirren cuts the figure of a bodice-ripping paperback heroine, a withering desert flower who blooms in the arms of a swarthy prizefighter roughly half her age. Mirren embodies the fantasy beautifully -- but Hackford's feature-length valentine to her all but sabotages the rest of the movie.
Though the names and minor details have been changed, the film is inspired by the rise and fall of the Mustang Ranch, a trailer-lined compound near Reno that became the nation's first legal brothel in 1971. The owners, Joe and Sally Conforte, had operated several illegal brothels before Joe muscled Storey County officials into passing an ordinance that allowed the two to set up shop. The Mustang Ranch survived in various incarnations until tax-evasion charges eventually brought it down; Joe and Sally's marriage suffered a hiccup, too, in 1976, when an Argentinean heavyweight named Oscar Bonavena came between them.
Appearing in his first major role since 1997's Gone Fishin', Joe Pesci plays Conforte stand-in Charlie Bontempo with a salty bravado imported from his work in Martin Scorsese crime epics like GoodFellas and Casino. A self-styled "visionary," Charlie yields the day-to-day operations (and the book-cooking) to Mirren's Grace while he greases the locals, hatches various hare-brained schemes and carouses shamelessly with the women in their employ.
Grace, for her part, blithely accepts their open marriage -- open to him, anyway -- until Charlie brings home Armando Bruza (Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a washed-up fighter he's keen to resuscitate.
That's enough story to overstuff a miniseries, let alone a movie, and Hackford and his screenwriter, Mark Jacobson, spread themselves perilously thin in the telling. Early scenes promise a more detailed look into the brothel's operations, trotting out a lineup of damaged young women (played by familiar faces like Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton, and Bai Ling) who give half to the house before rent, drugs and other incidentals grind them into indentured servitude. In a telling moment, one of the ladies lays down a $15 deposit to secure a pair of fur-lined handcuffs.
Then there are the hassles of fending off IRS agents and the moralist hordes threatening to kill the business through a ballot proposition.
All that intrigue gets scotched, however, when Bruza shows up and permanently derails the movie. Though his presence helps clarify the devastating weaknesses of a marriage founded less on love than business, Bruza's affair with Grace takes the film so deep into the realm of gauzy romance novels that the title starts to feel like a cheat. After fussing over brothel business and the micro-dramas within its cramped double-wides, Hackford and Jacobson abandon a rich setting for a May-December tryst that's rote and conspicuously old-fashioned. Mirren looks great throughout, of course, but Love Ranch serves her interests above its own.