Based on surprising true events, Queenpins is the story of two women who take control of their lives by launching an illegal coupon scam. It’s a fascinating tale that has compelling built-in themes about the way the system treats average people and wanting more out of life. Unfortunately, the movie, which was written and directed by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, is too unfocused and its central characters too underdeveloped for the story to really resonate.
Queenpins is narrated by Connie Kaminski (Kristen Bell), a former gold-medal winning Olympic athlete (in the unknown sport of race walking), who is still grieving a miscarriage after several rounds of fertility treatments that’s driven a wedge between her and her husband, Rick (an underused Joel McHale). In order to take control of her life, Connie becomes an extreme couponer, spending most of her time scouring the newspaper for deals so she can feel some measure of control and power over her life. It’s an interest she shares with her best friend JoJo Johnson (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a wannabe entrepreneur whose credit – and life – was ruined when her identity was stolen years ago.
One day after eating stale cereal, Connie writes an angry letter to the manufacturer and receives a coupon for a free box back. Realizing she can get more primo coupons this way, she’s soon writing to every manufacturer she can think of to score more free stuff. After noticing the coupons are all being sent from the same location, Connie hatches a scheme to sell them over the internet and reap the rewards, roping in JoJo and a couple who work at the Mexican plant where the coupons are printed to make it come together. Connie and JoJo’s gambit soon attracts the attention of Ken Miller, a supermarket chain’s loss prevention officer (Paul Walter Hauser). After taking his concerns to the disinterested FBI, Ken eventually gets the attention of U.S. Postal Inspector Simon Kilmurry (Vince Vaughn), who launches an investigation to uncover the women’s pink-collar crimes.
Queenpins features a fantastic cast that’s easy to like, and Bell and Howell-Baptiste as well as Hauser and Vaughn have exceptional chemistry. However, it’s Hauser’s sadsack Ken, that’s fleshed out the most, and while Hauser expertly handles both the pathos and the comedy of the script, the movie seems almost preoccupied with making the character as pathetic as possible. But tearing Ken down doesn’t make Connie and JoJo more sympathetic by comparison.
Instead, Bell and Howell-Baptiste’s characters come across as shallow and even selfish. Bell, in particular, has shown she can make prickly, morally compromised characters endearing and funny in TV series like The Good Place and Veronica Mars. Unfortunately, she doesn’t fare as well here. Although there are nods to Connie’s unhappy marriage, JoJo’s fraught financial situation, the way mega-corporations take advantage of their customers, and a Robin Hood-esque desire to offer a win to women like them in the form of discounted groceries, Queenpins never delves into these ideas with any real depth. As a result, Connie and JoJo’s motivations are never firmly established.
Meanwhile, although the film seems to be going for outrageous, breezy comedy, it’s only mildly funny, and the jokes come across as a series of sketches and tangents. Even an interrogation scene supposedly revolving around Connie becomes the set up for a virginity joke at Ken’s expense instead of an opportunity to understand Connie better. This makes the movie as a whole feel disjointed and its characters difficult to invest in. In addition, a supposedly happy ending just serves to establish the characters haven’t evolved at all. Maybe this is supposed to read as a win for the little guy, but given Queenpins‘ characters have managed to get everything they wanted and more from their scam, it ultimately makes them seem as exploitative and entitled as they claimed the corporations they took advantage of are.