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Coupon clipping caper ‘Queenpins’ conveys clever comedy

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We’re all familiar with the notion of coupons. Whether they’re bits of paper clipped from the weekend newspaper or codes procured from some website or another, coupons are a significant part of our consumer culture. Everyone recognizes that tiny thrill that comes with paying less.

But when couponing is pushed to its extremes, things can get a bit … strange. Shoppers developing methods to maximize savings, winding up with rooms filled with groceries and other goods, all in pursuit of that thrill.

And some people are willing to go even farther.

“Queenpins,” the new film by writer/director team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, draws its inspiration from a real story of coupons run amok, an international scheme that made its masterminds millions of dollars, all from exploiting those seemingly innocuous slips of paper.

It’s a heist story, a caper story, yes – but it’s also a story about the lengths to which we will go in order to feel empowered, to feel as though we have some agency in the direction our lives take. It’s a charming and occasionally goofy story about female friendship wrapped in a pink-collar criminal enterprise, led by a dynamic and talented cast.

Connie (Kristen Bell, TV’s “Ultra City Smiths”) is struggling. She’s a former Olympic racewalker living in Phoenix with her IRS auditor husband Rick (Joel McHale, “Happily”). Theirs is an unhappy marriage; they’ve spent tens of thousands on fertility treatments that have proven fruitless. Connie fills the void with an obsession with coupons, turning the room that was meant to be a nursery into a de facto pantry.

Connie’s best friend is JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, “Cruella”). JoJo lives next door with her mother; her credit was ruined by an identity thief, so she had no choice but to move back in with Mom. JoJo is a hustler as well, albeit in a different way, running a YouTube channel built around various lifestyle tips.

Connie and JoJo spend their time working out ways to increase their savings, but circumstances lead them to work out a scheme that could actively make them money – a scheme that involves getting their hands on valuable coupons in bulk, then selling them to other savings-savvy folks via the internet. They’re not criminal masterminds, of course, which leads them to enlist the help of a hacker named Tempe Tina (pop singer Bebe Rexha).

But as their success blooms, there’s someone who seeks to take them down.

Ken (Paul Walter Hauser, “Songbird”) is a loss prevention officer for a regional supermarket chain, he’s a by-the-book guy who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. When these new coupons start popping up – undetectable through the usual methods – he tries to get the attention of law enforcement, which leads to the arrival of a U.S. Postal Inspector named Al (Vince Vaughn, “The Binge”).

Connie and JoJo make their share of mistakes along the way, with Al and Ken in quiet, awkward pursuit. While these women are technically breaking the law, it’s tough to determine who they’re really hurting – but the law is the law. And as the circle tightens, we’re left to wonder what will come of this charming couple of coupon clippers.

Due to the nature of its story, “Queenpins” has a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, these are lawbreakers, engaging in what is very much a federal crime. On the other, theirs could be perceived as largely a victimless crime. It’s not even that they’re good people doing a bad thing. The ethics are questionable on their face. It’s that they saw an opportunity and seized it, talking themselves into the idea that what they’re doing is actually OK. Walking that line, finding a way to allow us to empathize with people on both sides of this equation … it’s hard. But the filmmakers manage.

One of the things we’ve seen from Gaudet and Pullapilly in the past – in their scripted narrative and documentary work alike – is a wonderful understanding of character. They have a remarkable knack for bringing forth the fundamentals of who a person is and utilizing that foundation for their own storytelling purposes. Comedic, dramatic, both – these are filmmakers who can harness the power of character. “Queenpins” works because it never looks down on those characters.

Let’s talk about those characters, because we’re looking at one hell of an ensemble. Bell leads the way; she’s a tremendously gifted comedic actress, one who is very comfortable with this brand of slightly offbeat humor. Howell-Baptiste is another one with finely-tuned comedic gifts. The chemistry between these two is palpable, exuding vibes of genuine connection even as they descend into oddball criminality. Honestly, they straight up cook every time they’re on the screen together.

Meanwhile, our other pairing is more of an odd couple. Hauser has an incredible talent for creating these off-putting weirdoes that we nevertheless find ourselves somewhat sympathetic to. He’s annoying and strange and hilarious. Vaughn more or less plays it straight against Hauser, which works; their antagonistic buddy cop act juxtaposes nicely against the more frantic energy of Bell and Howell-Baptiste.

All that, plus good work from Rexha and McHale and a host of other familiar faces (including my beloved Stephen Root).

“Queenpins” is an outlandish story crafted from just-as-outlandish true events. It combines a high-concept hook with a top-notch ensemble to tell a charming, funny story. Thanks to the chemistry of the leads, some clever dialogue and a willingness to embrace the silly, it all clicks. It’s good. Good enough, in fact, that you won’t even mind paying full price.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 13 September 2021 11:03

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