Review: 'Queenpins' turns coupon scam into muddled comedy

Kristen Bell stars as bored housewife who creates a criminal enterprise out of manufacturer's coupons for free cereal.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The quirky couponing comedy "Queenpins" begins with a scene of Connie Kaminski (a perky Kristen Bell) getting arrested in her bedroom in the middle of the night.

It's one of those freeze-frame needle-scratch moments where Connie, in voiceover, says something to the effect of, "yep, that's me! But how did we get here? Let's start from the beginning..." which is a device that has been so overused that it's become parody fodder. But here it's not meant as parody, or if it is, it's not signaled as such. 

Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste in "Queenpins."

"Queenpins" might have been better off as a parody. It's about a pair of Arizona housewives who turn a couponing scam into a criminal empire, but it never quite feels grounded in reality, and it exists in a comic universe where the stakes are so low they might as well not exist.

Its attempts to gain sympathy on its main characters work only if you give them no thought whatsoever; it's a movie that asks, "well if you were bored and your husband was sort of a jerk, wouldn't you create a multi-million dollar scam to find some happiness for yourself, too?" If you raised your hand and said "yes," please remove yourself from the chat. 

Bell's Connie is a former three-time Olympic speed walking gold medalist whose husband, Rick (Joel McHale) is an I.R.S. agent who travels three weeks out of the month. Connie's failed attempts at getting pregnant have left her with a void that she fills with extreme couponing. What would have been their baby's bedroom is now a storage facility where she keeps all the backup laundry detergent and breakfast cereal that she got on deep discount from the local grocery store. 

Connie's neighbor, a vlogger named JoJo Johnson (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), is also into couponing. Together, they join forces and kick their habit up a notch, tracking down a coupon manufacturer and getting him to run off thousands of freebies, which they turn around and sell on a janky website that looks like it was built off of a Geocities template. 

Soon the cash is pouring in, and Connie and JoJo are laundering it by purchasing Lamborghinis, high-powered assault rifles and their own private jet. Meanwhile Ken Miller (Paul Walter Hauser), a low level loss-prevention officer at the local grocery store chain, is on to the scam but has limited jurisdiction. He winds up pairing with Simon Kilmurry (Vince Vaughn), a U.S. postal agent, and together they create their own mismatched buddy comedy while trying to solve the case of the coupon queenpins.

Husband and wife writer-director team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly want us to identify with Connie and JoJo's scam, and treat it like an inevitability rather than a calculated bad choice. The big corporations print these coupons anyway, the film says, so what's the harm in exploiting what they treat as a write-off?

"Queenpins" isn't smart or savvy enough to turn the situation into a David and Goliath story of corporate culture, although in the hands of, say, Steven Soderbergh, that argument may be have been better posited. Gaudet and Pullapilly frame the film as a story of two girlbosses getting theirs, but against whom or what doesn't concern them, nor does the why of their decisions or actions. It creates a void that "Queenpins" slips into and can't get out of.  

Bell seems forced into a cheery disposition; she's Elle Woods past her prime but still trying to hold onto her spunk. Howell-Baptiste is OK in a sidekick role, and Vaughn delivers as an official who knows just how seriously he should be taking himself and his position. 

It's Hauser who brings the most to his role, playing another in his line of overly ambitious, in-over-his-head ne'er-do-wells, which has become his stock in trade. In the topsy-turvy world of "Queenpins," his lovable loser comes out as king.




Rated R: for language throughout

Running time: 110 minutes

In theaters