Movie Review: “Queenpins” try to pull off the big coupon con

Phoenix friends set up a massive grocery store coupon scam, raking in tens of millions and spending like drug lords until they bring down a massive Federal tactical response in “Queenpins,” a caper comedy overflowing with dark farce possibilities.

The script lured former “Veronica Mars” co-stars Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, as well as Vince Vaughn, Joel McHale, Stephen Root, Bebe Rexha, Jack McBrayer and Paul Walter Hauser of “I, Tonya” and “Richard Jewell.”

It’s got adorable not-dumb but hardly brilliant criminal masterminds, oafish over-eager corporate “loss prevention” and (postal) law enforcement, coupon stealing and money laundering, Lamborghini collecting and arms dealing.

And after all these balls are tossed in the air, writers/directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly (“Beneath the Harvest Sky”) make a nearly complete hash of things. A promising set-up, a bouncy first act, some fun performances, and the whole enterprise goes off the rails.

“Inspired by actual events” (a $40 million bust in 2012), our story is narrated by the perky, obsessive Connie Kaminsky (Bell), a Phoenix housewife and retired Olympic gold medalist race-walker who has thrown herself into couponing.

And of all the things to invent for your fictionalized version of a “pink collar” criminal mastermind, that there is a doozy. Was it to flatter Bell into taking the role?

Connie is couponing buddy with neighbor JoJo (Howell-Baptiste), a bubbly, failed-saleswoman, hard-luck would-be entrepreneur and Youtube “personal brand” builder who does videos about couponing as the SavvySuperSaver, “the savior of saving.”

They both love the thrill of watching a supermarket receipt subtracting price after price until that final total prints out and they can take home what one cashier calls “your trophy.”

They’re both experts at what a “six month stock up price” is for this or that product, and are willing to dumpster dive for proof of purchase boxes to feed their mania.

“Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves!”

And yes, both women have their sad reasons for this compulsion.

It isn’t until Connie learns the rewards of writing strong letters of complaint to assorted food and household product empires that they see a bigger score — reselling those “free” coupons such companies send out to maintain customer loyalty among the disgruntled.

And that’s what points them to Chihuahua, Mexico, where the coupons are printed and also processed, the promise of NAFTA at work. When Connie pushes them to figure out how to steal those coupons, smuggle them home and sell them illegally, they have their caper.

“Sounds bad when you say it like that!”

All that’s left is selling them online and stuffing cash into empty Pampers boxes.

They’re going to need help avoiding getting caught. That comes from identity theft queen Tempe Tina (singer/actress Bebe Rexha). And if you’re laundering money, why not spend it on high-end guns, the kind that go up in value when you see them in a film?

“No better commercial for a gun than a John Wick movie!”

Hauser, who is making a career out of playing law-enforcement wannabes, is the “Let’s cut to the Chevy Chase” loss prevention officer who can’t quite piece this all together. Vaughn is the Postal Policeman who gets interested when the FBI (Root) laughs off the crime. And McHale plays Connie’s tightwad, always-on-the-road/never-the-wiser IRS auditor husband.

With so much to work with, the writers/directors have trouble figuring out the tone and who and what to direct our attention to.

Our heroines aren’t heroic, but not enough is made of their desperation and no effort is given to making them identifiable and sympathetic. They’re cute together, but the “Robin Hood” ethos is a hard sell.

Better to have locked-down on the nuts-and-bolts logistics of low rent larceny and made our leading ladies dizzier and luckier — let their mistakes be more obvious, their downfall more comically suspenseful.

Their first meeting with “Tempe Tina,” involving blindfolds and a drive into the night for a secret rendezvous could have been tense comic gold, but is so ineptly-handled it should have been cut.

Vaughn and Hauser are co-starring in a crude, cut-rate “We’re not partners” cop-buddy picture with a few lowball laughs tossed around. And they’re the comic standouts in the cast. Bell and Howell-Baptiste never quite come off as comical as their characters seem destined to be.

The “sell guns to Arizona militia nuts” with their Proud Boys’ guts seems a lot more chilling now than when this was filmed, and might have taken me right out of the movie if it hadn’t lost me several scenes earlier.

All these complications make for a cluttered script that staggers towards a long-overdue and anticlimactic finish. And the epilogue is an unnecessary afterthought.

The first act of “Queenpins” makes you giddy at the comic possibilities, but the finale is the final straw in the letdown it too-quickly becomes.

Rating: R for language (profanity) throughout.

Cast: Kristen Bell, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Paul Walter Hauser, Bebe Rexha, Joel McHale, Stephen Root and Vince Vaughn

Credits: Scripted and directed by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly. An STX release.

Running time: 1:50

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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