Love Ranch is a shambles of trashy story arcs, made partially digestible by the dichotomy of its lead performances but unable to fully cope with its sleazy pedigree.

The movie begins with the concept of a day-in-the-life look at the people who operate a brothel outside of Reno, Nevada. It depicts the bonds between the employees, the level of corruption such a revenue-generating enterprise raises, the mechanics needed to maintain safety and security in a place that, by nature, elicits passionate responses, and a climate of moral outrage outside the place that threatens to bring down the whole venture.

Based in part on the happenings at a similar establishment in 1976, the movie features Helen Mirren as Grace, the matron of the girls and keeper of accounting books, and Joe Pesci as Charlie, her husband and a former two-bit hood who went partially legit by running a brothel. He’s still not completely clean; he has Grace keep a real and phony ledger. It was much easier to run a house of ill repute when it was illegal, he bemoans — back in the days when one didn’t have to worry about the IRS checking up on things.

He also has the law in his pocket, paying off the Sheriff (Gil Birmingham) to rip down posters advocating the passage of a ban on prostitution. Charlie has not left behind his good, old days of crime and isn’t opposed to shoving his fist in the mouth of the brother of the Christian group pushing for the proposition.

Pesci again employs his hedonistic, quick-to-anger persona, and it works, especially in contrast to Mirren’s calm demeanor.

Grace has been involved in the world’s oldest profession since she was born. Her mother was a hooker and taught the young Grace that it’s a great way to get rich, as long as you don’t put your heart in it. She treats her ladies of the night (well, all times of the day) with professionalism and sympathy. When one considers dropping an opportunity for another job because it pays less, Grace reminds her she wanted a better life for her kids and promptly fires her. If it doesn’t work out, come back.

Near the start of the movie, Grace is diagnosed with cancer and given a short life expectancy. She tries to tell her husband, but, in that old screenwriters’ standby, business gets in the way each and every time.

Mark Jacobson’s script forces this wedge in their relationship, which already has plenty of turmoil on its plate, as one last insult to injury. Charlie is currently having an affair with one of the bordello’s younger girls (Scout Taylor-Compton). She tries to use it as leverage against her co-workers, who are more than happy to point out that Charlie has had his fair share of women on the side at the ranch.

There is a level of interest in the day-to-day running of the Love Ranch, and then Jacobson throws a curveball in the form of boxer Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). He was once a big deal, but Charlie finds him at a casino with a crippling gambling debt. Charlie pays it off with the stipulation that Bruza is now his fighter. Grace becomes de facto manager, since Charlie is a convicted felon.

Grace’s girls, Charlie’s battle with the religious group, and the way the ranch functions drop into the background. The story becomes less about the brothel and more about the growing bond between Grace and Bruza, which turns romantic seemingly out of necessity for conflict instead of naturally from the characters (yes, this is how events reportedly transpired in the movie’s real-life basis, but that doesn’t make it any more convincing).

Mirren is strong in the dawning moments of their sexual tension, as Grace grapples with her newfound attraction to Bruza and her decades-long dedication to Charlie. After that, it merely follows the mold one would expect from such adulterous drama, complete with a boxing match and a revelation of deathly irony.

The story of Love Ranch is too confined to its eventual love triangle to fulfill the opening hints of episodic character and period study and too broad in subplots and ancillary characters to explore its central characters’ dilemma beyond the melodramatic high points.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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