Queenpins, the new film from writer-director duo Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet, begins with an intriguing premise. Connie (Kristen Bell) ropes her friend Jo-Jo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) into a coupon scam that quickly becomes more lucrative—and thus dangerous to their way of life—than they ever expected.
Queenpins Never Picks A Kingdom
They both have cause to be mad at the world. Connie is a former multiple medal-winning Olympia who has nothing financial to show for it. She’s seen her relationship to husband Rick (Joel McHale) eroded by repeated attempts at fertility treatment and the emotional and literal costs that followed. Jo-Jo had her identity stolen.
Still, the people in charge (banks, credit bureaus) won’t believe her, so she has no choice but to live with her mom and try to scrape by on a cash-only makeup sales business and niche YouTube channel. The potential is there to deliver either an ensemble comedic crime caper like Logan Lucky or a somber “holding up a mirror to society” exploration of America ala Breaking Bad.
Alas, the film chooses neither path.
As a result, Queenpins ends up neither as funny nor as incisive as one would like. Instead, it’s a mess of tones. For example, Loss Prevention Officer and miserable man Ken (Paul Walter Hauser) can defecate in Postal Inspector Simon Kilmurry’s (Vince Vaughn) rental car in one scene. Then, about 15 minutes later, receive an earnest pep talk about his genuine decency from Kilmurry. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that the scatological scene is excruciatingly unfunny.
At other times, the movie seems high on its own supply. The repetition of Connie’s sport—race walking—is a warmed overtake on what does admittedly seem like a silly event on its face. Same with the film’s take on being surprised that Kilmurry could be a legitimate investigator while working for the post office. Brooklyn 99 made that joke already and funnier seven years ago. Worse than Queenpins reaching for these jokes is them doing it repeatedly, so confident in their funniness.
You also see this on the film’s more serious side. Connie’s concluding monologue sends viewers off with the sense that the movie wasn’t sending her up the whole time but actually bought into her faux-positivity. It’s a very strange note to leave the theatre on, wondering, “Oh wait…they meant all that seriously?”
What keeps Queenpins from being a disaster as well as a mess are the performances. Vaughn can do this kind of role sleepwalking (and he just might have been here), but it works. His bone-dry sarcasm creates a nice comedic tension because there’s always the threat of him uncoiling and taking Walter Hauser apart.
Bell has been funnier, but she does well here digging into Connie. The way she plays the character’s spiraling immorality without any sense of regret works. You often find yourself realizing a beat or two later who far gone she is because Bell makes it all seem so reasonable and matter-of-fact. Howell-Baptiste doesn’t get as rich a part to play, but her JoJo never feels cartoony or bland.
My favorite performance, though, goes to Bebe Rexha as Tempe Tina. As a former nemesis turned mentor, she projects this wonderful sense of constant competence and annoyance. In a movie or underused talent (see below), she’s a delightful surprise.
It’s not all good news. McHale, for one, is too good to be saddled with such an underwritten, thankless role. Ditto to Stephen Root, Paul Rust, Eduardo Franco, and Marc Evan Jackson, who show up in too tiny parts that give them little room to show their comedic chops. Why stock the bench so deep if you’re aren’t going to bother to utilize their skills?
Time and again, that’s the reality of Queenpins. So much potential, so much talent, so little follow-through.