There are three options when a movie or TV show uses the “freeze frame/record scratch/‘yep, that’s me’ ” conceit to kick off a story. Option A: You’re watching “Saved by the Bell.” Option B: It’s ironic. Option C: What you’re watching is going to be terrible.
“Queenpins” falls squarely onto option C. The halted scene is that of Connie (Kristen Bell) being awakened in the middle of the night by a SWAT-style team. The rest of the movie, written and directed by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, tells us how she got there.
Connie, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in race walking (a fact that is mentioned repeatedly but isn’t particularly relevant), is really into couponing. For those who haven’t seen the strangely hypnotic TLC series “Extreme Couponing,” adherents to this philosophy aim to lower their grocery bills in, well, extreme ways.
They stalk sales fliers; beg, borrow or steal extra coupons from their neighbors’ Sunday papers; and get a special thrill on “buy one, get one free” deals. Connie, who is married to IRS auditor Rick (Joel McHale), turned to couponing after several failed rounds of in vitro fertilization helped contribute to a hefty dose of debt. But it’s more than saving money for her – it’s a rush, an obsession and an identity.
One day, after a few handfuls of stale Wheaties, Connie writes to the company and receives a coupon for a free box in return. She and her partner in savings, JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a neighbor who runs a failing YouTube channel devoted to coupon strategies, realize that if they could get a lot of high-value coupons, they could sell them to savers across the country.
When they make contact with workers in a print shop in Mexico to steal unused coupons to sell, they’re pretty much committing what the government likes to call fraud. Their scheme is first noticed by Ken (Paul Walter Hauser), a loss prevention agent at a fictional supermarket who spots the surge in big-ticket coupons.
After being given the runaround by various federal agencies, he eventually links up with U.S. Postal Inspection Agent Simon (Vince Vaughn), who provides the ways and means to catch the sales-minded criminals.
Coupon fraud is a real thing, and a 2021 case led to retail losses of over $31 million, all at the hands of a husband and wife who were selling counterfeit coupons. A good story lurks somewhere in “Queenpins,” but Gaudet and Pullapilly take the easy way out at every plot point and with nearly every joke.
Connie and JoJo justify their life of crime by saying they’re selling coupons to people who really need them – like Robin Hood but with scissors. Connie’s motivation in particular is consistently muddied: It’s not that every criminal needs a clear-cut reason to break the law, but Connie is either doing it because she wants a baby or because her Olympian mindset means she has to “win” at all costs.
Or maybe it’s because she likes to buy nice things or because the filmmakers just need the movie to move along already. The same problem plagues sad sack Ken, who, aside from being underwritten, is saddled with the worst of the film’s gross-out humor. Perhaps audiences are supposed to pity the character; it’s easier to pity the actor.
It’s frustrating because a couponing crime lord (crime lady?) being pursued by an obsessed grocery store employee is a story that has so much potential, but the lazy storytelling and on-the-nose direction sucks all of the laughs that could come out of the situation. This could be “Ocean’s Eleven” with coupons for family packs of Cottonelle and BOGO bottles of Tide at its center.
Instead, the stakes feel low. Even after Connie and JoJo move from thinking “it’s only a little illegal” to “it’s illegal but morally justified” to “we could go to jail for a very long time,” it never seems that they’re risking much. Thanks to the opening scene, we know they’re going to get caught; thanks to the lack of motivation, we don’t really care how.
In the end, Connie’s way-too-present voiceover says “You may ask yourself: Who won and who lost?” Within the movie, that’s ambiguous. In real life, the biggest losers are clear: anyone who bought a ticket to “Queenpins.” Even if they used a coupon.
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