The crime comedy Queenpins has a lot in common with its main character, Connie Kaminiski (Kristen Bell), plenty of potential, even more spunk, but in the end they both clip off little more than they can handle. The writing, directing and husband and wife team of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly wrangle a lot into a film about undervalued people told through a coupon scam. While the results are entertaining enough, it trips up along the way preventing it from ever hitting its full stride.
Queenpins tells the story of a former Olympic medalist speedwalker named Connie. Unfortunately for her, not all Olympic medalists walk away with fame or millions in endorsement deals. She lives a less than glamorous life with her checked out IRS employee husband (Joel McHale) in suburbia Arizona. After spending their savings and then some, on several unsuccessful fertility treatments her focus has shifted to coupon clipping – both to make ends meet and to distract her from her failed attempts at starting a family.
Understand though, Connie is not clipping a few coupons. If there was an Olympic event for couponing, she would medal in it, maybe even earn a world record. Her average trip to the supermarket is a cashier’s nightmare involving stacks of coupons resulting in huge savings. It is more than a hobby, it is a lifestyle. After her complaint to Wheaties (The Breakfast of Champions) leads to the Holy Grail of rebates, a coupon for a free box of the product, Connie’s wheels begin turning and turning and turning. Behind the housewife facade and bad hair is a crafty and determined woman. Soon she has harnessed her skills into a scheme to rake in thousands of dollars in coupons.
To keep the scam in operation and growing, she brings on board her friend and video blogger Jojo, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste. And boy does the scam grow! It reaches such exorbitant levels that it puts them on the radar of the feds. On the case are a pair of odd-couple “investigators” determined to find their culprit. Ken, an overly-committed supermarket store loss prevention officer who has stumbled upon the case of his career (Paul Walter Hauser) and Simon, a by-the-books US postal officer (Vince Vaughn). Things blow up from there.
The film is loosely “based on a true story.” The real events behind it were all new to me. This made watching the ladies build their coupon empire quite intriguing. Two underestimated women stick it to “the man” – even if their approach is ethically askew. How big can this scheme grow? Will they get away with it? The first half of the film flows down familiar paths, went down easy and had me ready for more. Much glee comes from seeing two suburbia dwellers, a couple of fish out of water, learning the ropes on their path from opportunists to criminals.
A comedic version of Hustlers, Breaking Bad, but instead of cutting drugs or working the pole they deal in coupons. While it starts out well the scheme and the film begin to unravel the longer it continues. As things scale to absurd levels, soon there are guns, private jets and Lamborghinis in the mix – this Robin Hood tale of two women stealing from the rich to feed the poor (them) devolves into something less interesting and more convoluted. I am not sure how much of this actually happened, but I was buying very little of it. Even as a farce, the balance is off.
The focus shifts from the two women crime team and their scheme only to be become equally, if not more, focused on Hauser and Vaughn characters who feel spliced in without an ounce of finesse. It is as if two films were being shot and the editors only learned at the last minute. A somewhat light-hearted crime thriller and an (often goofy) buddy cop movie that feel squashed together like two pieces of different puzzles. Because of this, both storylines end up feeling disjointed and underdeveloped.
The feeling of a split personality does not end there. The pair provide some hit-or-miss moments of comedy, but never really fit in. Even the humor feels like a graceless mashup. One minute it is somewhat intelligent commentary on the corporate/consumer America in the country, the next it is literally a joke about one character trying to avoid soiling his pants.
Don’t get me wrong, I laughed, but I felt a little ashamed doing so. Hauser and Vaughn do their best to sell the joke. Seriously, besides for a goofy laugh, I do not understand why this bit is in the film. It is one of several moments that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. This is where the film falters instead of flying – there is a lack of constraint. Characters and entire scenes seem like sketches that are included to provide a cheap laugh, or, even worse, to pad the already bloated running time.
The film’s strength is the cast. They are up for anything and sometimes it pays off. As played by Bell, Connie starts a character you can empathize with and Howell-Baptiste’s Jojo is energetic and full of spirit. They have chemistry. Their innovativeness and fortitude when it comes to couponing would have been enough to keep me curious and wanting more.
Vaughn and Hauser are a good comedic duo, playing to their strengths, even if their characters seem aimless. Hauser slips into his lovable loser role and it works again. If they did more than to pile on him and showed him some heart it would have served the character and film well. Bebe Rexha’s debut is not wasted as a hacker who helps the ladies maximize their scam even if she too feels crowbarred in.
Unfortunately, the film ultimately seems like it wants to say more but never finds a way to say it. Actually, the more the film tries the less it says. With this clever premise and a top-notch cast this film could have been something special. A crime film about two small-time (turned big time) coupon crooks being tracked down by a relentless, little-respected supermarket in a game of cat and mouse – sounds like it would be thrilling and funny. It never quite gets there. Perhaps injecting a little darkness in the vein of Fargo (both the series and the film) or Heathers would have served it better. Instead it ends up being rather scattershot and poop jokes.
Since the balance is off throughout we are left wondering who are we rooting for here, what is at stake and do we care? At some point it all becomes an afterthought for Gaudet and Pullapilly, leaving the audience floating aimlessly until we finally get to the conclusion that was already revealed in the film’s opening minutes. (A head scratching misstep that I groaned at immediately.)
Still, as is, Queenpins is not a total loss, just a letdown. Go in for a fun escape and you will find enough to enjoy. If you go in looking for anything more, you will probably leave feeling disappointed that you didn’t use a coupon.