During a groaningly meta moment in Love Ranch, starring Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren as the married proprietors of a Nevada brothel in the mid-’70s, Pesci asks Mirren, “Who do you think you are, the queen of fucking England?!” Though Mirren’s character runs the day-to-day business at the whorehouse, she nonetheless has much in common with Mirren in her Oscar-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen: an iron will, a dignified resolve, and a bone-dry wit, just for starters. In his first starring role since 1997’s Gone Fishin’, Pesci is equally typecast to perfection as a big-talking hustler who carries over his signature combination of glad-handing joviality and explosive rage so completely that the character would qualify as “The Joe Pesci Role” even without Pesci playing him. So with two great, ideally cast actors and such potentially fascinating subject matter, why does Love Ranch feel like a clumsy TV movie?
Love Ranch casts Mirren as a savvy businesswoman who runs the state’s first legal brothel with longtime personal and professional partner Pesci. While Mirren cooks the books and plays mother hen to a motley aggregation of wild-child prostitutes, Pesci serves as the operation’s public face, oozing oily charm and throwing himself into one hare-brained promotional scheme after another. Pesci’s decision to buy out the contract of a has-been Argentinean boxer (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) backfires spectacularly when the mysterious pugilist and Mirren fall madly in love.
Love Ranch works best as an exploration of a marriage that’s fundamentally flawed, yet still strangely functional: Pesci cheats on Mirren constantly and jeopardizes the brothel’s future with his volatile temper, but until Peris-Mencheta shows up, they share a strong bond rooted in mutual self-interest and a long, shared history. But director Taylor Hackford (Mirren’s real-life husband) and screenwriter Mark Jacobson can’t decide what story to tell or what film to make. Is Love Ranch a bawdy comedy about the absurdity of selling sex like used cars? Is it a dark drama about a pimp who is never more than a few seconds away from exploding into violence? Or is it ultimately a glorified romance novel about a sexy older woman whose long-dormant libido is unleashed by the rough hands and warm heart of a hot-blooded younger man? Love Ranch and its overloaded, tonally incoherent screenplay never answer these questions in full.