Connie (Kristen Bell), the bubbly protagonist of Queenpins, has a catchphrase: “Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” In other words, don’t sweat the big stuff, but mind the small stuff. It’s advice the film itself seems to have taken to heart, fussing over telling character details and pointed lines in hopes that they’ll add up to a worthwhile yarn.
But it’s no spoiler that Connie’s approach doesn’t entirely work out for her in the end, and perhaps Queenpins should have taken that development into consideration as well. The crime comedy ends not as a fat stack of jokes but a jumble of loose change — not entirely worthless, but not amounting to a whole lot, either.
A crime comedy that pulls its punches — and its punchlines.
At the start of her story, Connie is a housewife who by all appearances is enjoying a comfortable and contented life. Of course, there’s more to her blandly pleasant persona than meets the eye, just as Queenpins would like you to think there’s more to its flat beige Phoenix than meets the eye. We quickly learn that she’s an Olympic gold medalist in the much-mocked sport of race-walking, that four rounds of IVF have left her with no baby but lots of money troubles and, most relevant of all, that she’s an extreme couponer — her house is filled with binders of discounts and shelves of all the products she’s bought with said discounts.
Collectively, these biographical details paint the picture of a fictional disaffected suburbanite who, like Walter White or Beth Boland before her, seems poised to turn to a life of crime, and so she does. After an angry letter to General Mills about stale Wheaties yields a coupon for a free box, a lightbulb goes off in her head. Within days, Connie’s mailing complaints to every food conglomerate in hopes that they’ll send her coupons for free stuff, which they do. Within weeks, she’s driving down to Mexico to steal coupons that she can smuggle back into the States and resell online for a healthy profit.
The leap from a perfectly legal pseudo-scam to an international criminal enterprise involving multiple accomplices and millions of dollars is a big one, and it’s one Queenpins never quite manages to sell — in large part because it can’t quite seem to decide how it feels about Connie. Writer-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly’s ambivalence deprives the film of both the wish-fulfillment fantasy of an antihero arc and the moral righteousness of a straightforward do-gooder one.
On one hand, Connie’s a criminal queenpin who disingenuously presents herself as a modern-day Robin Hood, even as she takes home most of the cash. On the other hand, she does actually spread some of the cash around to minor characters who seem to appreciate her efforts, not that most of them get enough lines to explain themselves. And Bell’s performance, which emphasizes the character’s wide-eyed fragility while muffling any anger or bitterness or wicked glee, seems designed to garner sympathy.
And besides, have you heard about global outsourcing, trickle-down economics and corporate tax loopholes? Queenpins has, and it raises those issues not so much to engage with them in any nuanced or insightful way as to let Connie off the hook with a shrug. Its superficial handling of real-world issues is even less effective with regard to JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Connie’s best friend and halfhearted voice of reason. Queenpins spends most of its run time dancing around the idea that JoJo’s Blackness might make her less willing to embrace risk and more likely to pay for it than her white partner in crime, and the chemistry between them suffers as a result — despite the dorky humor that Howell-Baptiste and Bell share, it’s hard to buy into their intense closeness.
Ultimately, Queenpins tries to resolve these contradictions by settling on the position that both Connie and JoJo are, basically, ditzes — smart enough to cook up this ingenious plan and execute it with ease, yet somehow also too flighty to spend more than 30 seconds figuring out how to evade the authorities. It makes for an unsatisfying characterization but also makes them the ideal nemeses for the oddball pair pursuing the case: Ken (Paul Walter Hauser), a supermarket chain loss-prevention officer; and Simon (Vince Vaughn), a U.S. postal inspector.
Queenpins‘ comic sensibility comes through most clearly in Ken and Simon’s buddy-cop dynamic, Hauser’s puppy-dog eagerness slamming up against Vaughn’s dry solidity, and their methodical investigation of these pink-collar criminals yields some of the film’s biggest laughs. The very fact that Simon is a postal inspector — as opposed to something cooler, like an FBI agent — is presented as a gag. But like so much of the humor in Queenpins, it’s a joke that trails off before the punchline, leaving us unsure whether to be amused by Simon’s self-seriousness or moved by his apparently sincere dedication to the U.S. Postal Service.
By the final scenes of Queenpins, Connie’s ditched her favorite motto for a different pearl of wisdom: “It doesn’t matter how you get to the finish line as long as you get there.” Unfortunately for her, Queenpins has already proven her wrong by the time she gets there. We’ve do get to the end of the movie, all right. But the journey there isn’t worth the ride.