Ethics are cheap in “Queenpins,” a cuddly capitalist satire that riffs on the true story of a tiny suburban counterfeiting ring who made millions selling ill-gotten coupons for cereal and dish soap. Kristen Bell stars as Connie, an ex-Olympian quivering with restless energy, who lures her neighbor JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) to join her criminal enterprise. Though their seven figure haul is destined to catch the eye of the authorities, the women see themselves as modern Robin Hoods, and writer-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly (“Beneath the Harvest Sky”) are inclined to agree.
Connie’s idea is simple. She and JoJo convince two married factory workers in Mexico (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino and Francisco J. Rodriguez) to ship them unused sheets of coupons. These they sell online to cash-strapped housewives willing to pay $10 for a $20 value. It’s a victimless crime, Connie believes, and the film’s bright colors and sophomoric needle-drops don’t offer much dissent. When Connie costumes herself in a prim blue dress to win favors from bank officers, the soundtrack plays, yes, “Devil With a Blue Dress.”
Gaudet and Pullapilly argue, cheekily and convincingly, that the real crooks are the unseen conglomerates who’ve created a society that devalues products and their consumers. The problem isn’t a few thousand free boxes of taco shells — it’s millions of strivers leaning-in only to learn that the American Dream is just a catchy sales phrase.
To these multi-hyphenate corporations, moving a factory from Ohio to Mexico is like snipping a half-off coupon for human labor. A jumbo pack of toilet paper on sale isn’t much different than Connie herself, whose skill in slashing the weekly grocery bill goes underappreciated by her IRS employee husband (Joel McHale) and the aggrieved check-out clerk (Eduardo Franco) of her local Phoenix supermarket. (The suggestion that she buys bulk detergent to distract herself from a miscarriage is a bit too tidy.)
Meanwhile, local loss prevention officer Ken (Paul Walter Hauser, riffing on his oafish wannabe from “Richard Jewell”) is equally frustrated at the lack of applause for busting a retiree trying to cheat a few pennies off the cost of her Preparation H. (All the brands are real, underscoring that the companies who manufactured them did, in fact, hunt down the couponeers.)
Here, everything and everyone feels undervalued: Connie by her husband, JoJo by bankers who’ve hobbled her ability to start a legitimate business, Ken by his bossy employers, and even Ken’s idol Simon (Vince Vaughn), a postal inspector aware he’s less-respected than the FBI. From the opening scene — a record-scratch intro where Connie is arrested in her cutesy PJs — it’s clear these resentments are fated to boil over in mail fraud, impulse Lamborghini purchases, gun running, and one unfunny moment when Ken poops his pants so as not to abandon a stakeout. “This is my beach in Normandy,” he boasts. Simon is unimpressed.
The scatological jokes are too sloppy for a comedy this sly. (Another Ken scene takes place pants-down on the toilet.) Ken is the kind of guy who desperately wants to present himself as a stoic, but when alone, screams in rage. He’d be scary if the film didn’t make him the literal butt of the joke. Slapstick and social critique can mesh — think Charlie Chaplin swallowed by the assembly line in “Modern Times” — but here, Hauser’s endless humiliations feel petty. By contrast, there’s a lovely bit when JoJo, an excellent saleswoman, celebrates a deal by sliding into a sequined fantasy dance number. This, says the film, is the boss diva others are too blind to see.
Bell has made a career of playing demented chipmunks with big smiles and a sincere way of saying, “Super duper!” that allows them to get away with more than they should. She and Howell-Baptiste’s lower frequency JoJo have a strong chemistry, perhaps due to Howell-Baptiste’s recurring role on Bell’s sitcom “The Good Place.” Together, their hustlers are tenacious, talented, and hopelessly in over their head, according to a mysterious hacker named Tempe Tina (pop singer Bebe Rexha) who barges into “Queenpins” to give the duo their titular name and school them in how to shuffle their online profits.
Tempe Tina’s latex corset belongs to a ’90s cyber thriller. If she, too, is posturing at being a scam goddess, the film is too crammed with other ideas to explore it. Instead, the script makes room for a running gag about people’s eagerness to blame every woe on China, plus a stand-out confrontation between Ken and a frazzled mother (Annie Mumolo of “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”) who refuses to feel guilty for buying discount Cheerios. The mom prioritizes keeping her one-year-old happily fed. Ken trusts that he’ll be rewarded for defending every curve in the letter of the law. But while a can of corn can easily be stickered with a price tag, it’s thornier to affix a value to a moral choice. Or, for that matter, to a person who acts out in understandable frustration toward an economy that pays a few people too much and the vast majority too little. As Connie says, “I knew I was worth more.”