Queenpins could have been a very different movie. The true story of three suburban Arizona women who were arrested in a multimillion-dollar coupon scam could’ve been turned into a scathing, Adam McKay-style social satire that explores the economic disparities in our country. It could’ve been a gritty and violent Widows-like crime film about resourceful women pushed to the edge. It could’ve been an in-depth character study of the marginalized women at the center of the crime.
Instead, filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly pretty much chose to do a straight-up comedy. It has a smattering of social commentary along the way, but when it doubt, Queenpins always opts for the fart joke.
Luckily for the film, most of the jokes land—even if it does start with an (unironic?) “Yup, that’s me!” freeze frame; a move so clichéd, it’s featured on knowyourmeme.com. But lead performers Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste are quite charming and game, making the whole enterprise eminently watchable (despite the terrible fart joke—more on that in a bit).
In this version of the tale, there are two “queenpins,” not three. They are Connie (Bell), a former Olympic speed walking champion (heh) trapped in a loveless marriage with her auditor husband, Rick (Joel McHale). Things between Connie and Rick fell apart after they went through a lengthy and expensive IVF treatment that resulted in a pregnancy and a miscarriage. Now he spends most of his time on the road, by design, while she fills what would’ve been the nursery with her booty from her compulsive coupon clipping exploits.
We’ve seen lots of characters like Connie before, from Tracey Flick to Rachel Berry to Charlotte York. Overachieving and chipper to a fault, they use their plucky optimism as a shield against pain and sadness. “Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves!” Connie chirps to supermarket cashiers as she wields her fistfuls of coupons. Later, that will become the motto of her criminal enterprise.
Connie’s best friend is JoJo (Howell-Baptiste), who was forced to move in with her mom (Greta Oglesby) after she was the victim of identity theft. JoJo is a would-be entrepreneur—she has a line of African-American cosmetics called “Back in Black”—but her grumpy mom has no patience for her slow progress.
“Mom, have you heard of Steve Jobs?” JoJo protests.
“What do you know about a job,” her mother grumbles.
Everything changes when Connie tears into a box of stale Wheaties and rattles off the proverbial angry letter to its corporate offices. Miraculously, she is sent a coupon for a free box, which ignites an idea. As Serena Williams stares at her triumphantly from the Wheaties box, Connie begins writing angry letters to all sorts of companies—toilet paper, snacks, diapers—receiving apologetic free goods in exchange.
Then she devises an even larger scheme—what if she were to get her hands on thousands of free coupons and sell them for half the price of the original items to customers? A win-win for everyone! She somehow manages to rope JoJo into her crime, and they drive to a coupon plant in Mexico, where they find a pair of willing accomplices—a married couple with a baby on the way bemoaning the fact that they’re being exploited by an American company for their cheap labor. The couple sends boxes of extra coupons—otherwise bound for the shredder—to Connie and JoJo, and the grift is on.
There are two other key players in this story. First there’s sad sack “loss-prevention officer” Ken (Paul Walter Hauser), whose job is basically to go around to supermarkets spotting coupon scams (usually the coupon holder has no idea they’re wielding a fake). But once he figures out there’s a large-scale coupon scam afoot, he’s thrilled. Finally, his chance to be a major player! He takes his suspicions to the FBI, where he’s mostly ignored and laughed at. But when it’s determined that Connie and JoJo are using the mail to commit their coupon fraud, the case is bumped to the U.S. Postal Service, where hotshot inspector Simon Kilmurry (Vince Vaughn) comes in. Kilmurry is a straight-laced man who wears a badge and carries a gun. While Ken is disappointed that his fantasies of becoming an honorary FBI agent are not coming true, it turns out that Kilmurry is the man for the job. “No one f**ks with the post office,” he says proudly. (Indeed, the film’s admiration for the post office seems slightly out of step with the current zeitgeist. Yeesh, read the room, Queenpins.)
It’s funny to see Vaughn in this kind of role—as a young man, he was the ultimate winking hipster. Now he’s a strapping, middle-aged straight man, albeit with a touch of dry wit around the edges—it’s a Reverse Leslie Nielsen, if you will. Ken and Kilmurry have their own little buddy comedy going on, which proves to the be the weakest part of the film.
I just want to spend a little time dissecting that fart joke (is a sentence I just wrote). To be honest, I undersold it. It’s not a fart joke—it’s a full-on shit-your-pants joke. And it’s one of the many ways that the film craps on Ken, so to speak. While the two men are sitting in a stakeout, Ken intentionally relieves himself in his pants (he doesn’t want to leave the car, lest he miss the moment the mark emerges from her home). It’s an extremely gross gag, less funny than cruel. It also reflects the film’s ambivalence toward his character. Sometimes Ken is depicted as a flat-out jerk. (He doesn’t let a kindly old lady use her bogus coupon and won’t trade seats with a little girl who wants a window seat on a plane.) On the other hand, he’s supposed to be seen as schlubby loser to be pitied, a man in desperate need of one moment of glory. At all times, he’s the object of mean-spirited jokes.
On the bright side, the buddy comedy between Connie and JoJo actually is quite winning, as the two cheerful besties have no clue how in over their heads they are. In one scene, they are being taken to a secret location by their new partner, hacking expert Tempe (Bebe Rexha). As they sit blindfolded in the backseat of her car, they start yammering on about how it’s true what they say, your senses really are heightened when you’re blindfolded! (“Did we just go over a bump?” “Is that Juicy Fruit gum you’re chewing?”)
Later, they start trying to unload their millions, believing it to be “dirty money.” They buy Lamborghinis and private jets and get the full “enjoying the fruits of their crime before the inevitable downfall” montage usually reserved for films about dudes. They also buy a bunch of automatic weapons. “That shouldn’t have been so easy,” Connie says, with a casual glance at the backseat full of guns.
The film’s weird cruelty toward Ken notwithstanding, Queenpins is mostly silly fun, and it zips along a nice clip. It made me LOL several times—but considering the richness of the source material, it’s a bit disappointing that it never made me think.