Madam majesty

Helen Mirren rules in Love Ranch

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Love Ranch is in a different class than Showgirls, but there's something charmingly trashy about it regardless

"Who do you think you are, the queen of fucking England?"

That's Joe Pesci to Helen Mirren in Love Ranch, a film that takes Mirren about as far as possible from her titular role in 2006's The Queen. She stars as Grace Botempo, co-owner of Nevada's first legal brothel alongside her husband, Pesci's Charlie. The fact that the regal British dame is entirely convincing as an American madam speaks to her impressive versatility.

In fact, Love Ranch is more of a showcase for Mirren than anything else. While the movie as a whole is engaging — insofar as it's a 1970s period piece about legalized prostitution — the plot is mostly predictable. Grace finds herself drawn to the Argentinean prize fighter her husband forces her to manage. In Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), she gets the attention and appreciation Charlie can no longer offer. In Grace, Bruza gets a woman who looks damn good at 64.

The unlikely relationship between the two is actually Love Ranch's weakest element. It's clear why they're drawn to each other, despite the age and cultural gaps between them, but the affair plays out like an indie flick cliché. From the moment Grace and Bruza meet, you sense where things are going — and that takes away most of the excitement from the eventual consummation.

Still, there's a lot to like about Love Ranch, which should be taken as more of a character piece anyway. Aside from Mirren, who carries most of the weight, Pesci returns to form as the violent and volatile Charlie. Then there are the prostitutes, a veritable who's who of sexy, seedy actors: Bai Ling, Taryn Manning, and Gina Gershon, who turns in her finest work since 1995's Showgirls.

Obviously Love Ranch is in a different class than Showgirls, but there is something charmingly trashy about it regardless. Part of what makes it so enjoyable is seeing Mirren in this context, watching her get ravaged by a much younger man, break up girl-on-girl fights, and say things like, "I've got 25 psychotic whores to manage. That's a full dance card." It's doubtful the film would be worthwhile without Mirren's efforts. We care about Grace because of her sympathetic portrayal, but also because she's Helen effing Mirren. And though there's something disingenuous, perhaps even gimmicky about that, it works despite itself. We're drawn to Grace, even when Love Ranch's third act proves disappointing, and that's enough to keep watching.

LOVE RANCH opens Wed/30 in San Francisco.

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