Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Film Review: Queenpins (Paramount +)


(I know I've been a bit behind on my film reviews.  I am hoping to get caught up on Christmas break).

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

Sometimes the B story in a movie makes the film worthwhile.  That is the case with Queenpins.

The movie centers around Connie (Kristen Bell), an in-debt lonely house wife who gets a thrill from serious couponing.  She saves, stores, and calculates maximum savings with books of coupons.  She is aided in this by her best friend and neighbor JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who is trying to become internet-famous.  Both women are stuck in their lives.  But they come up with a plan to steal corporate coupons and sell them online for serious money.  This gets the attention of Ken (Paul Walter Hauser), who is in charge of loss prevention for the supermarket.  Ken takes this job VERY seriously and even brings this scam to the attention of the FBI.  Eventually, he teams with US Postal Inspector Simon Kilmurry (Vince Vaughn) to follow the clues to get closer to taking down Connie and JoJo.

One of the things the movie does really well is that it makes the story interesting and compelling.  I actually became fascinated not only with the act of couponing, but also with the entire process of how they are made, as well as investigations into coupon fraud.  With a topic that has the potential to be incredibly dry, the movie did an excellent job of keeping me interested.

This movie has an incredible cast for this movie.  Bell is one of the most talented actresses working today who can effortlessly switch between comedy and drama.  You can see her use every comedic muscle she has to bring Connie to life.  Howell-Baptiste has to play the more grounded of the two, but she is able to play off an excellent chemistry (she and Bell worked together on The Good Place and Veronica Mars).  Vaughn is at his best here, not as the out-of-control party guy but as the frustrated professional who is barely holding together his seething rage at everyone else he considers and idiot.  But for me, Hauser is the real gem of this movie.  I have been a big fan of his ever since seeing his fantastic turn in Richard Jewell and I even enjoyed his over-the-top character on Cobra Kai.  His Ken is such a lonely loser, and you come so close to hating him but Hauser infuses him with such a core of humanity that you cannot help but like him.  You get so annoyed at how much of stickler for the rules he is, and yet he is absolutely right.  His chemistry with Vaughn is perfect and he has some of the funniest moments (not an easy thing when paired with Vaughn.

The main story, however, centers around Connie and JoJo.  And this is the biggest flaw in the film.  The scenes with Ken and Simon are funnier and much more interesting.  You begin to wish that the movie was about them instead of the criminals.  And this is a movie that puts the criminals as the heroes.  Connie and JoJo's criminal enterprise is portrayed as empowering, where the only victims are the large, faceless corporations.  Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect than what the filmmakers intended.  Instead making Connie and JoJo more engaging, it makes them more unlikeable.  (MILD SPOILER AHEAD THIS PARAGRAPH). It comes in drips and drabs, but it really comes to a head when Connie decides to impregnate herself at a clinic without using her husband's contribution.  This moment is meant to be a triumphant act of self-determination and independence from her cold-hearted husband.  But all I could feel for her in that moment was disgust like that of an infidelity.  From that point forward, our main "heroes" could not win me back.

Movies where the heroes are criminals are tricky things.  Ocean's 11 is an incredibly fun movie, but we keep wanting our heroes to get away with the sin of theft.  Queenpins tries to do the same thing, but they are not nearly as successful at it.  It makes sure the heroes are sympathetic enough that we don't want them to get into too much trouble, but it never quite reaches the levels of Ocean's 11.  Perhaps that is a good thing so that we don't admire vice and Ocean's 11 is therefore an thematically inferior film.  I'm not sure.

The writing is a mixed bag.  One of the cardinal rules of good writing is "show, don't tell."  We learn that Connie had suffered a miscarriage.  We see boxes of her couponed purchase stacked in an unused nursery.  As the audience, we can put the pieces together that she is trying to fill her life with something to replace that emptiness.  But the script has her husband (Joel McHale) come right out and explicit state this character beat.  The script does not have enough confidence in itself to take off the way it could.  Bell and Howell-Baptiste do the best they can with this material and it is at times very funny.

But every scene with Vaughn Hauser is well worth the price of admission.  There was one part where I had to pause the movie because I was laughing so hard.  Ken psyches himself up to interrogate a suspect and he plans on shouting to him, "Who's the girl, Earl?"  The memory what happens next still makes me chuckle as I'm writing this.

Writer/directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly have an excellent concept and almost execute it in a way that would make this one of the best comedy in years.  If they had taken a little more time with the A story, it would not get outshined by the B story.  

I would see another movie made by this cast.  And I really hope Vaughn and Hauser get to work together again.  I would recommend this movie for their scenes alone.

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