“This is a story about coupons. Little ol’ coupons.”
That’s how Connie (Kristen Bell) describes the story we’re about to be told in the opening sequence of Queenpins, an only semi-diverting comedy about a suburban scam that blows up into a federal case. There is irony in that statement given that Connie refers to the “little ol’ coupons,” via voiceover, right after authorities burst into her bedroom in the middle of the night and force her to put her hands in the air. This looks like Goodfellas-level stuff, not a moment that stems from an excessive reliance on the cute, clippable discount tickets that come in the Sunday newspaper insert. Queenpins then pauses in the middle of Connie’s confrontation with the law to rewind and start from where this whole situation really began.
That choice — the freeze-frame that segues into a flashback — is a pretty predictable one. So are a lot of the creative decisions made by writer-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, life and filmmaking partners whose experience is mostly based in the documentary genre. There are some effective bits here and there. And the stacked cast, which also includes Bell’s Good Place co-star Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Paul Walter Hauser, and Vince Vaughn, does its best to have fun with the material. But this film ultimately doesn’t reach its full potential in part because it can’t settle firmly enough on a vibe or viewpoint. It ping-pongs between buoyant caper, farce, and female empowerment drama without ever lingering long enough in a single zone to make an impact.
Based loosely on an actual coupon scam that went down in Arizona in 2012, Queenpins focuses on Connie, an unhappily married former Olympic athlete — she’s a champion race walker — with a string of failed IVF treatments on her reproductive record, and her friend and neighbor JoJo (Howell-Baptiste), an entrepreneur and vlogger forced to live with her mom after her identity was stolen and her credit score got wrecked. Their fixation on coupons begins semi-innocently enough; at first they clip and sell them to consumers who will still benefit from the remaining discount while putting some cash in the ladies’ pockets. Then Connie realizes that companies routinely send coupons for free products to people who write complaint letters. She eventually sprawls out a plan that involves stealing free coupons, smuggling them into Phoenix from Mexico, and working with a hacker (Bebe Rexha) who helps Connie and JoJo keep their identities untraceable. But as the movie’s introduction, as well as basic common sense, tells us, they probably won’t be able to get away with this for too long.
The whole get-rich-scheme-gone-wrong story is a rich subgenre with potential for great comedy, high drama, and, if you really know how to walk the tonal tightrope just right — read: if you are a Coen brother — both at the same time. Faintly, one can hear echoes of other TV and film projects that Queenpins is striving to evoke, from NBC’s Good Girls to the HBO docuseries McMillions to a truly old-school predecessor, How to Beat the High Cost of Living, the 1980 movie about three women (Jessica Lange, Susan Saint James, and Jane Curtin) attempting to steal prize money from a shopping mall. But it doesn’t evoke them effectively enough nor does it solidly establish its own attitude.
Bell and Howell-Baptiste have an enjoyable and natural chemistry together, but the movie keeps changing its mind with regard to how it feels about them. In some scenes. they seem like rubes who are out of their depth. In others, we’re expected to celebrate their clever badassery as they slurp Champagne on a private plane or, in Connie’s case, strut into a bank while wearing a blue dress as Mitch Ryder’s “Devil With a Blue Dress On” thumps across the soundtrack.
Matters are made more muddled in the second half of Queenpins when Ken (Paul Walter Hauser), who oversees loss prevention for a chain of grocery stores, teams up with Simon (Vince Vaughn), a postal inspector, to track down Connie and JoJo after the FBI passes the buck. Too much time is spent on buddy-comedy-style antics between the two of them, which takes time away from our central protagonists and flattens what should be rising tension as Connie and JoJo get closer to being caught. As a man whose existence revolves around maintaining rules, Hauser does give an authentic and interesting performance, one that manages to be funny, creepy, and almost poignant at various moments. But he deserves better than what the script often gives him, and yes, I am including a scene in which Ken voids his bowels while sitting in the passenger seat of Simon’s car.
It is possible to make a movie that suggests that scammers sometimes resort to scamming because corporate society is itself a con job in which average people are exploited, something Queenpins tries to imply. It is also possible to make a movie that doesn’t glorify crime, even though it sometimes winks at bad behavior. Queenpins tries to do that, too. The problem is that it doesn’t know how to hold all these things in its hands at the same time without clumsily letting some elements go splat on the ground. In the end, Gaudet and Pullapilly try to leave the audience on an uplifting note that seems at odds with much of what we’ve seen and heard in this story. “It really doesn’t matter how you get to the finish line, as long as you get there,” Connie tells us.
This story about “little ol’ coupons” finally gets to its finish line, but it does so in such a disjointed way that afterward, moviegoers probably won’t remember much about the race it ran.