Helen Mirren playing a madam is such fitting casting that it's almost too much. For an actress who has made sexuality her life's subtext, it's as winking as Clint Eastwood playing a gun salesman or Dustin Hoffman a pool cleaner.
But Joe Pesci, who plays her husband and business partner, Charlie "Good Times" Bontempo, has the coyest line in "Love Ranch" — an allusion to Mirren's Oscar-winning performance in "The Queen."
"Who do ya think you are? The queen of ... England?" he asks, somehow restraining a look into the camera.
So the question is, what's an actress of Mirren's quality doing in "Love Ranch," a supermarket romance novel of a movie? The answer: a favor.
Mirren's husband, Taylor Hackford, directs "Love Ranch." It's the first time they've worked together since they met while making 1985's "White Nights." (Hackford has since directed "Devil's Advocate" and "Ray," his previous, Oscar-winning film.)
"Love Ranch" is loosely based on Joe and Sally Conforte, the famed brothel owners whose Mustang Ranch in Reno found national attention in the '70s. Joe Conforte brought heavyweight fighter Oscar Bonavena to the ranch, where Bonavena supposedly became involved with Sally and was eventually shot dead in 1976.
The film is written by magazine journalist Mark Jacobson, whose inflated article on gangster Frank Lucas was the basis for "American Gangster." Jacobson's script for "Love Ranch," set in the mid-'70s, centers on the romance that develops between Grace Bontempo (Mirren) and the visiting Argentine boxer Armando Bruza (newcomer Sergio Peris-Mencheta).
As Charlie, Pesci is only a step or two removed from "Casino" territory. Wearing a bolo tie and an inconsistent Southern accent, Pesci is trying to build their lucrative brothel into a larger enterprise. Calling everyone "sugar," he takes his turns with the ranch's girls, making no attempt to hide his infidelity.
Grace, weary from a lifetime running Nevada brothels, tells him: "I'm not the great visionary like you. I'm just down here with the nuts and bolts."
She keeps the books and the girls in order. In perhaps her finest scene, she quickly and ruthlessly settles a squabble between two prostitutes, flipping one to the ground with her cane and keeping her there with her boot on the girl's throat.
Grace keeps secret a cancer diagnosis (from the terribly named Dr. Smathers) that she has six months to live. But when the rugged, charismatic Armando arrives, Grace is reluctantly stirred, and the two soon begin — against Grace's nature — caring deeply for each other.
And this is where "Love Ranch" looses its footing most obviously. A movie with prostitutes, guns, boxing and Reno is crying out for the film noir treatment. Along with neon signs in the desert, give us some terse dialogue and some fatalism.
Instead, the dressing for "Love Ranch" is a soap opera romance.
With a Christian group and the IRS circling the brothel, Pesci — as always — seems ready to explode. You find yourself surprised that it takes the combustible actor as long as it does to let loose.
Wasted in thin bit parts are fine actors like Gina Gershon (as a prostitute), Bryan Cranston (as a dirty politician) and Wendell Pierce (as a representative for Muhammad Ali).
Mirren does her best with the soapy material, but the better recent reminder of her early sex-symbol "Caligula" days was her performance as Sofya Tolstoy in last year's "The Last Station." Who knew Russian lit was sexier than Reno pulp?