*Warning: This piece may contain spoilers for Queen Bees*
Listen: a cast of star-studded acting veterans such as Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Ann-Margaret, Christopher Lloyd, Jane Curtin, and Loretta Devine in a comedy made for the “young at heart” should at least make for something palpable. Unfortunately, however, director Michael Lembeck, most notably known for the Santa Clause sequels and the (dreadful) Tooth Fairy, makes sure Queen Bees is barely watchable, as it feels like a horribly sentimental Hallmark/Lifetime movie you’d catch on TV on a rainy Sunday afternoon and immediately forget about once it’s over.
Case in point: the film’s plot is so uninspired you’ll likely have seen in a plethora of Hallmark movies, with the same type of character progression. It tells the story of Helen Wilson (Ellen Burstyn), an independent retired woman who lives alone after her husband died years ago. She believes a plot is against her, as her nearby neighbors ask about when her house will be sold, believing her daughter (Elizabeth Mitchell) wants her out of her home and in a retirement community to profit off her house. However, an accidental fire force Helen out of her home and inside Pinegrove’s retirement community. At first, she’s incredibly reticent of staying in but quickly starts to make friends and quickly falls in love with one of her neighbors, Dan Simpson (James Caan). Predictably, she starts to form a community and loves being at Pinegrove so much that she’ll quickly start to call it her new home.
There’s nothing new and/or original Queen Bees offers. The film is strictly made for audience members looking for the most predictable and comforting films imaginable that never wants to innovate from a screenwriting perspective. Take, for example, Helen’s arc. Once she settles into Pinegrove, she incessantly reminds everyone she meets that she’s “only going to be there for a month!” due to her house reparations, as she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the retirement community…that is until her reparations get delayed time and again that she is forced to make some friends. You can already tell how her arc will end by only watching the film’s opening: Helen is stubborn about her house and doesn’t want to let go of her past life. How will this end? Of course, she’ll eventually have a change of heart, and staying at Pinegrove will make her able to let go of the past and move in the present with Dan and her friends.
Many subplots immediately get dropped and/or are deemed unimportant after they are presented. For example, in proper Tommy Wiseau fashion, it’s revealed that Sally’s (Loretta Devine)’s cancer has come back and never (ever) gets mentioned again. Why say something so drastic that could change the direction of your character and never follow through on it? The same can be said for Christopher Lloyd (whose comedic chops are pitifully wasted here), who reveals, in a rather emotional sequence to Ann-Margaret’s Margot, that he has Alzheimer’s and has trouble remembering the names of each person he meets, also never gets mentioned again. Again, both are important directions for its supporting characters yet are never brought to completion.
It desperately wants to emotionally invest the audience in Pinegrove’s characters. Still, it doesn’t seem to understand that every decision made to flesh out a character needs to have some importance, either to the story or how it motivates the character to live with passion every day or something along those lines. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even strokes are mentioned, which are all serious and life-threatening, yet seem to be only minor annoyances for the character. Margot gets a stroke; her left arm may be permanently paralyzed, it never changes her emotional state or even bothers her. But, again, what’s the point of presenting life-threatening ailments if it’s not going to change the characters or make them evolve in any way? Most of the character development is facile and predictable anyways, so it’s not like Lembeck and screenwriter Donald Martin could’ve infused some emotional weight to the characters and make its most dramatic scenes feel somewhat important…right?!?
Because, otherwise, you’re only watching a shell of a somewhat competent film. This isn’t going to be “the greatest film in the world,” but it could very well work under a better script. The performances from its veteran actors are quite good, most notably Loretta Devine, who is the heart and soul of the film’s quasi-emotional weight. The film’s heart falls rather flat without her because you can predict how Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, and Jane Curtin’s arc will end. Devine is the only one that truly seems to care about which film she is in, with the other actresses giving decent (but not so memorable) performances. It’s disappointing to see someone like Ellen Burstyn giving only a “decent” performance when she gave one of the best acting portrayals of her career in last year’s Pieces of a Woman. Even if the material isn’t good, Burstyn & Caan manage to make their chemistry feel convincing, mostly thanks to Caan’s on-screen charm, which has never been lost in the plethora of films he has been in.
On the other hand, Burstyn seems to be mildly interested in the film’s material, probably because it’s been done time and again through other direct-to-VOD pictures and Hallmark-like productions. If you’ve seen multiple Hallmark Christmas films, you can barely differentiate them from one movie to the next since they recycle the same storylines, year after year, with different characters and settings to give audience members the illusion that they’re not the same movies. Yet, with such inept screenwriting that follows a safe three-act structure with the same emotional beats, without fail, it’s hard to get invested in a movie that deems itself “different” but recycles the safest three-act story possible you’ve seen in a plethora of predictable comedies.
Queen Bees is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill, predictable comedy directed with no personality and soul, in the vein of more recent tenures in “young at heart” comedies with Poms, Book Club, or March’s Senior Moment starring William Shatner. Seniors may enjoy Queen Bees’ assembled cast of A-list acting veterans. Still, audiences looking for a newly released film with an original script that tries to do something different from what they’ve seen before shouldn’t watch this movie. Unfortunately, it plays it too safe for more alert audiences to have a good time, and those audiences are better off seeing In The Heights this weekend for something truly spectacular.