Kristen Bell’s mainstream movie career has so closely adhered to the rom-com-to-mom pipeline (with a few adjacent stopovers in familial strife) that it’s easy to forget that she was once the face of class-warring rage as perpetually struggling young-adult private eye Veronica Mars. That Bell can play an actual Disney princess as credibly as an embittered gumshoe is a testament to her range, but it can also be strange to watch some of her movie characters pursue the kind of domestic bliss that the prickly Veronica sometimes actively sabotages. Queenpins, which exists at almost precisely the halfway point between Bell’s Bad Moms comedies and their more respectable STX stablemate Hustlers, infuses some of that anxiety into a seemingly chipper character. It also re-enlists her in class warfare, of a sort, casting her as a suburban housewife who finds purpose in perpetuating multimillion-dollar coupon fraud.
This is one of those so-crazy-it-must-be-true stories—and like a lot of nutty chyron-ready anecdotes, it’s been converted into a movie that doesn’t appear to much resemble the facts of the actual case. Sometimes that process involves broadening real people into caricatured “characters,” so filmmakers can do their best/worst Coen brothers impression, minus the love of language and deceptively graceful understanding of human nature. Thankfully, that’s not quite what married writer-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly are up to with Queenpins. Connie (Bell) and her best friend/neighbor JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) aren’t hapless rubes; they’re just two women in different kinds of American-dream purgatory. JoJo lives with her mom, her credit in ruins after an identity theft, trying to make money as a solo entrepreneur, peddling makeup and starting a YouTube channel. Connie is somewhat better off financially; her husband Rick (Joel McHale) has a good job with the IRS. But their middle-class lifestyle can’t afford them endless opportunities to try for a baby after several rounds of unsuccessful IVF treatments.
Connie channels her frustrations and loneliness into extreme couponing, stocking up on endless household supplies that she and Rick—who is written and played without a shred of genuine decency—don’t strictly need. Similarly, Connie doesn’t need to write a complaint letter when a box of bargain Wheaties turns out to be stale, but she does anyway, and the promotional coupon she receives for a free replacement box gives her an idea: Why not obtain a whole bunch of these free-stuff promotions and sell them at an extreme discount online? Soon, she and JoJo are making trips across the border to scout out the printers, embroiling other pittance-wage workers in their scheme.
The scheme itself is both more audacious than its real-life equivalent (which involved forging coupons, rather than stealing the real thing) and not especially exciting. Gaudet and Pullapilly don’t seem especially interested in the logistics of the scam, beyond the friction it creates when Connie and JoJo solicit the guidance of a shadowy money-hiding expert nicknamed Tempe Tina (Bebe Rexha) while, amusingly, not fully understanding her advice. As their illicit business grows, Connie and JoJo proceed on an unwitting collision course with Ken (Paul Walter Hauser), a “loss-prevention” specialist working for a grocery store chain. In place of actual legal authority, Ken has a stickler’s dogged persistence, and eventually his reports catch the attention of Simon (Vince Vaughn), a postal inspector. The two of them embark on an investigation—or rather, Simon investigates as Ken tags along.
In its back half, the movie drifts from Bell and Howell-Baptiste to give Hauser and Vaughn some space to riff, and there’s something tediously old-fashioned about how this Strong Female Lead comedy cedes a lot of its actual shtick to the male ringers. Still, Hauser and Vaughn don’t overplay their mismatched-buddy routine, and it’s funny to see Hauser, rather than the usually motormouthed Vaughn, play the more gung-ho of the pair. Even at its most ridiculous, this is a crime comedy where almost everyone is sincere, relatively soft-spoken, and even kind of square. Gaudet and Pullapilly’s affection for their characters allows Queenpins to settle into a low-key watchability, unconcerned with telling joke after joke.
Despite all that, the movie’s real void isn’t in its comedy; it’s in whatever might lie beneath its class-conscious signifiers. Connie and JoJo never seem especially changed or challenged by their experiences, which vaguely suggests a satirical approach that Queenpins never fully develops. On the more dramatic side, Connie’s heartbreak over a recent miscarriage offers both a grace note for Bell to play and psychological complexity that the movie doesn’t seem equipped to handle. Voiceover tries to fill in some of those gaps, but resorts to “yep, that’s me”-style sitcom-pilot shortcuts. Compared to her broader comedies, Bell seems to be after something more complicated here, something about consumerism and crime as similar forms of self-help therapy, or how women without a child or strong career are left to fend for themselves. Something about America, or whatever: The movie around her can’t quite communicate more than that.