Love Ranch is a troublesome clothesline on which to hang a pair of comeback performances. Wait a minute — did we say “comeback”? This past winter, Helen Mirren was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs. Tolstoy in The Last Station, and she won an Oscar for 2007’s The Queen. She’s never really been away. It’s only Joe Pesci who’s making the comeback.
Anyone can imitate Pesci. Just crank up your voice up a few octaves and blurt out, “You said I’m funny. How the fuck am I funny? What the fuck is so funny about me?” in an annoyed, belligerent tone of voice. It’s almost as if filmmaker Taylor Hackford rigged Love Ranch to fit the Joe Pesci we all know and love — or know and are sick of — his hot-headed Tommy character from Goodfellas, but twenty years later.
Why now, at this late date? Why indeed, after My Cousin Vinny, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, and Jimmy Hollywood have driven that particular act into the ground? This is only one of the unanswered questions that pop up as we fidget in our theater seat, watching Pesci run through the old “You mudda-fucka!” routine while Mirren and a parlor full of hookers slosh around him, in the disappointingly dopey story of some characters hanging around a bordello.
Love Ranch has the ingredients for a decent popcorn movie. Journalist Mark Jacobson, from New York mag and the Village Voice, based his screenplay on the real-life story of Joe and Sally Conforte, the husband-and-wife team of whore-mongers whose Mustang Ranch set the pace for legalized brothels in Nevada, circa 1976. The ambitious Confortes branched out into another corner of the meat market by latching onto an Argentine heavyweight prize-fighter named Oscar Bonavena, in hopes of promoting him — and, collaterally, their cathouse — into the boxing-and-shtupping big-time, as a Reno antidote to Las Vegas.
Their plans went awry when Oscar got eyes for the much-older Sally. He also evidently skimped on his training and fell out of shape. Soon after Bonavena’s career fizzled, he bought a one-way ticket to Palookaville, taking a high-powered-rifle slug in the chest outside the ranch’s front gate. A Mustang security guard pled manslaughter for the shooting, but Bonavena’s fate was chalked up to hubris — the hulking Buenos Aires native got suckered into believing he was ruler of the roost, and he paid for his delusions.
That sordid tale appealed to fight fan and writer-producer-director Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman, Dolores Claiborne) as well as to Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter turned film producer and pal of Jacobson’s. Hackford’s casting coup was to convince Ms. Mirren, his real-life wife, to assume the role of coyote-in-chief Grace Bontempo, modeled on Sally Conforte. Pesci returns to the screen after a four-year absence as Grace’s husband Charlie Bontempo, a fair approximation of Conforte, with rugged Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Armando Bruza, the “Wild Bull of the Pampas.”
Mirren apparently took the job as a favor for her husband, but the scheme backfires. In a beguiling career capitalizing on her combination of voluptuousness and intelligence, Mirren shouldn’t really need to muss her hair playing an American madam who falls in love with a pug. What was no doubt intended as a stretch — in the wake of her Queen Elizabeth and Countess Tolstoy — seems oddly strained on screen, especially bouncing off the walls with Pesci’s Charlie. The trailer-trash Westerner dialogue sticks in her mouth. Like the man who got herpes on his eyelids by looking for love in the wrong places, Mirren seems a bit out of place in this grudge match of a scenario. Don’t count on any Academy nominations coming from Love Ranch, even for Mirren’s brave, ill-advised perf. The bit with the cane is pretty good, though.
The dialogue, for its part, is atrocious, and Hackford’s shot-blocking gives the brothel scenes a claustrophobic feel that may not be intentional. Every time the prostitutes go into a scuffle, our attention span drifts back to Jack Hill and Pam Grier’s much-superior Coffy — if Hackford & Co. really and truly wanted to evoke the Sleazy Seventies, they should have studied Grier’s filmography like a religious text.
We’d like to think Hackford would have more imagination than to have Pesci recycle his Casino and Goodfellas roles so unashamedly. We know we’re in trouble from Pesci’s first scene (sample line: “I do fuckin’ love you”), although it is mild fun hearing “Joe Doggs” sing honky-tonk. The tired naughtiness reflects on his face. Sixty-four-year-old Mirren shows no signs of career fatigue; sadly, 67-year-old Pesci looks over the hill.
In his first English-language film, Peris-Mencheta bobs and weaves amiably through the chump role of Bruza, training on booze, pills, and pizza. The fight sequence, in which Bruza is reduced to 250 lbs. of Argentine hamburger, was choreographed by the great Jimmy Nickerson, who did Raging Bull. Bruza’s love-clinches with Mirren have a tender sincerity the Pesci-Mirren moments lack, although his character functions more as tragi-comic relief alongside the hos. A few of the Mustang girls stand out: veteran floozie impersonator Gina Gershon (Showgirls), the intriguingly named Scout Taylor-Campion, and go-to sexpot Bai Ling, who plays every scene with her legs akimbo. There are more leisure suits than you can shake a Smiley Face at.
Anote on Maren Ade‘s surprisingly effective, well-acted character study, Everyone Else: It’s gratifying to see a German filmmaker, especially a female one, floating the sort of obliquely stated vacation-with-edgy-relations drama usually associated with French helmers like Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, and François Ozon.
Writer-director Ade’s childish couple, Chris (Lars Eidinger) and Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr), inhabits a space in which a holiday in Sardinia is fraught with the same personal and career tensions they left behind in Germany. Architect Chris is insecure and snobbish. Gitti is impulsive and warm, but tries too hard. Both have ego issues and entirely too much time on their hands as they enjoy long lunches and try to avoid bumping into other Germans.
There’s almost a class or meritocracy barrier between them. He’s having a crisis of confidence but doesn’t think she fully understands the situation. She’s needy, he’s mean, they gradually get on each others’ nerves. And we get to watch. Filmmaker Ade is a talent to keep an eye on.