The timing was perfect. The very moment I sat down to write about Queenpins, a tantalising coupon popped up on my screen.
It offered 20 per cent off, for a popular brand of socks. I recalled what Ken, the hapless “loss prevention officer” played by Paul Walter Hauser, said in the film about why people use coupons: It’s not usually because they need the stuff. It’s the buzz they get when they score a deal.
This alone could have made the germ of a movie: the psychology of discount shopping. But like many themes here, it gets muddled into a confusing – though often highly entertaining – pastiche of ideas and styles. Writer-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly offer up a commentary on the value of work. There’s a critique of capitalism, and an intriguing buddy relationship between two women with very different lives but shared goals.
The shame is that an excellent cast could have been better served. Aside from Hauser, we have the appealing duo of Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as the coupon criminals. Bell is an expert at using her endlessly perky exterior to hide devious intentions, and as for Howell-Baptiste, somehow she makes us root for her no matter what she’s doing – like negotiating a gun sale to a possible right-wing militia.
Connie (Bell) is a frustrated housewife in a loveless marriage to a dry IRS auditor (Joel McHale). Unsuccessful fertility treatments have put the couple in debt. In some particularly trite dialogue, Connie refers to her miscarriage as a failure “to get to the finish line”.
There’s one thing, though, that gives Connie satisfaction: coupons. At the supermarket, she’s presented with a bill of USD138.55, but triumphantly hands over a wad of discounts to get to USD16.45. “That was impressive,” notes a man behind her.
One day Connie eats some stale Wheaties and decides to complain to the company. She’s thrilled to get a coupon for a free box. And she wonders: What if she had an endless supply of such coupons and could sell them for profit? She enlists neighbour JoJo (Howell-Baptiste), who seems to understand from the start that this may constitute, oh, a crime?
The duo figures out that coupons are printed at a factory in Mexico. All they need is an insider. They find a worker who earns only USD2 an hour and is happy to oblige.
They rack up millions within months. Under the impression that they need to launder the money, they buy a bunch of stuff – Lamborghinis, a boat – to sell and make it “clean”.
In any case, the women sail ahead in their exploits, with no idea that Ken (Hauser), a low-level employee determined to do his job well, is on their trail. He’s joined in the pursuit by a gun-toting postal inspector (Vince Vaughn, in a tailor-made role) who bristles at unkind postal service references.
Like the inspector, everyone here feels they should be better valued. “I knew I was worth more,” Connie says. This alone would have been a great organising theme. Instead, we get a kitchen sink full of coupons.