Let me tell you about my favorite moment in Queenpins. It comes near the end of the movie, just after law enforcement arrests Connie Kaminski (Kristen Bell) and JoJo Johnson (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) for operating a $40 million coupon scheme.
A team of US postal inspectors led by Simon Kilmurry (Vince Vaughn) bust the crime duo. One of the inspectors, a man in full riot gear and equipped with some kind of assault rifle, examines their table of contraband. He picks up an illegal coupon for diapers and turns towards Kilmurry to tell him that he has a baby on the way. “I could use these,” he says, before sneaking one into his pocket so only the camera sees.
The scene ends with another officer grabbing a bag of Cheetos, one of many items the crime duo have “stockpiled” with their extreme couponing. He asks another man what they should do with the food. He responds, “What about it? It’s food. Leave it.” The officer shrugs, opens the bag, and eats. Many cannot dismiss food, and especially free food, so easily.
I’m not spoiling the movie by bringing you to the end. After all, a true story you may already have encountered inspired Queenpins. And the movie begins with law enforcement barging into Connie’s home as she sleeps and then works its way back from there. I mention the end here as a way to highlight what I appreciate most about the movie: the way it is funny without making coupons, and the people who need coupons, the butt of the joke.
Filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly make this intention clear from the outset. Both Connie and JoJo are unmoored and dissatisfied with their lives. Connie is stuck in an unhappy marriage to a mean and miserable IRS agent (Joel McHale). She wants to have a child more than anything, and he resents her for spending all of their money on IVF treatments. JoJo lives with her mother (Greta Oglesby) and tries and fails to make it as an entrepreneur and influencer.
One of the few highlights of Conne and JoJo’s lives is the hours they spend together extreme couponing. Where their loved ones see a weird hobby, they see real savings and a sense of purpose. Even though they save thousands of dollars on items, everyone, including the cashiers at the supermarket they frequent, thinks they’re crazy and wasting their time. It’s a viewpoint only someone who never had to worry about money might take.
Connie and JoJo’s understanding of the value of coupons leads to the creation of their scheme. They know that after consumers redeem coupons, they are sent to a facility in Mexico to be destroyed. So, they travel to one of the facilities and partner with a pair of workers (a young couple with a baby on the way) to steal the coupons and resell them to unknowing customers in the United States. It’s a win for everyone but the corporations, who make billions of dollars anyway. At one point, JoJo likens their work to Robin Hood.
One other character in Queenpins understands the true value of a coupon. Ken Miller (Paul Walter Hauser), a loss prevention officer for a large supermarket chain, has seen dozens of counterfeit coupons. When we first meet him, he identifies an old woman’s coupon as fake and refuses to give her a discount. He’s the inverse of Connie and JoJo: a rule-follower protecting the pockets of the big guy. But like the two women, Ken finds little fulfillment in his life. He longs for more.
Because he takes coupons seriously, he sees what no one else does. After Connie and JoJo’s business takes off and corporations start losing millions of dollars, only thanks to Ken’s insistence does the case wind up in front of Agent Kilmurry. Though he finds Ken annoying, Kilmurry realizes his expertise and invites him to join the investigation. Ken, then, begins to feel a sense of purpose.
Queenpins never invites us to root against Connie and JoJo as their crime empire grows. Instead, we laugh at the expense of the wealthy people they screw over. And even when the women make questionable purchases with their new wealth, at least we know their customers, while technically defrauded, are profiting too.
As one woman says when asked why she purchased coupons, “Do you have any idea how many Cheerios a one-year-old goes through?” The joke then is that we live in a world where people are forced to buy and sell coupons to purchase basic items. The system, whatever you want to call it, is a joke. Coupons, certainly, are not.
At its best moments, Queenpins succeeds as a commentary on income inequality and the failures of capitalism. But the movie undermines itself at times by indulging in more sophomoric humor. One joke is that Ken is a virgin — really? And there were one too many scenes involving bodily fluids and waste for my liking. I enjoy a good joke about excrement as much as anybody, but they must be tasteful.
Despite all that, I enjoyed and laughed with Queenpins in no small part due to the performances. Bell, Hauser, and Howell-Baptiste are particularly strong. We root for each of them in our own way as we watch them grow. Near the end of the movie, Connie and JoJo bond over their shared understanding of why people coupon.
The satisfaction people feel comes not from money or owning more things, but the sense of purpose derived from seeing something through to the end. What is important, then, is not money in the bank or the things we own, but how we feel. It’s a mantra that, in the face of the world as it now exists, I can certainly get behind.
Queenpins hits theaters on September 10th and will be available to stream via Paramount+ on September 30th
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