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The over-the-top TV series Extreme Couponing rubbed many coupon users and industry professionals the wrong way, because it presented itself as reality, but was far from it. The savings – and the coupons – were often too good to be true, and some of the participants had a problematic backstory that was never acknowledged on screen. The show’s response was, essentially, “hey, that’s entertainment.”

Queenpins, in contrast, is entertainment that doesn’t purport to portray reality. The movie, which opens in theaters Friday, is inspired by true events, but tells its own story. So those involved may be hoping that what some people hated about Extreme Couponing, they just might love about Queenpins.

In many ways, the movie is like a look into the lives of a couple of Extreme Couponing participants after the reality-show cameras stopped rolling. TV’s extreme couponers shared their hard-luck stories, started clipping coupons, built up a giant stockpile of products they got for next to nothing, and lived happily ever after.

Queenpins‘ Connie Kaminski, played by Kristen Bell, has the hard-luck story, the coupon-clipping and the giant stockpile – but is missing the happily ever after. She’s outwardly chipper, but it turns out she’s in debt, struggling with infertility, and stuck in a loveless marriage to a husband who’s rarely home. She’s obsessive but unfulfilled, spending money just to save money, storing her products in the room that was meant to have been the nursery, for the baby she’s tried and failed to have. “You’re trying to replace what you lost with coupons,” her exasperated and unimpressed husband says.

Connie’s neighbor and best friend JoJo Johnson (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is outwardly energetic as well, as a seemingly confident and successful how-to-coupon YouTuber. But she, too, has her own frustrations, as she struggles to make ends meet selling cosmetics and living with her mother.

Their backstories thus established, the film and the women’s lives begin to brighten when Connie has a couponing epiphany – she writes a letter of complaint to a company about its product, and is surprised when she’s mailed a coupon for a free replacement. The light bulb goes off and she starts writing dozens of complaint letters to companies, and watches in wonderment as the free-item coupons roll in.

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That’s when she and JoJo concoct a plan. They drive to a factory in Mexico where all of these free-item coupons are printed, and convince an insider to send them the “extras” – by the caseload. “These companies make bazillions of dollars. So it’s not like they’re going to miss a couple of coupons,” Connie reasons. “It’s like Robin Hood,” JoJo agrees. “We’re going to get them to families who really need them.”

Or, more precisely, they’re going to sell them to families who really need them. They set up an online storefront and soon enough, find themselves running a massive, multimillion-dollar illicit coupon empire, as their enemy-turned-ally Tempe Tina (Bebe Rexha), a mysterious computer hacker, tries but largely fails to prevent them from getting in over their heads.

Now, it must be said that the coupon industry frowns upon the type of letter-writing campaign that Connie engages in, since the “consumer relations coupons” that companies send out are meant to address legitimate concerns, not fill couponers’ stockpiles. But to the possible relief of a skittish industry, any concerns that moviegoers could engage in copycat couponing behavior might actually end there, since the subsequent plot details are not precisely true to life. There is no “one factory in Mexico” that prints “every free-item coupon”, and despite the movie’s many references to “counterfeiting,” the coupons that the women sell are not really counterfeit at all – instead of printing and selling fake coupons like the real-life women who inspired the movie, they steal real coupons to “redistribute,” and make themselves rich in the process.

So if would-be copycats want to wander around Mexico in hopes of getting rich by finding the factory that makes all the coupons, good luck to them.

The coupon scheme drives the film’s plot, but the comedy is largely character-driven, as the women get themselves in deeper and deeper, engaging in outlandish behavior and making outrageous purchases after getting too rich too fast, all while trying to convince each other – and themselves – that what they’re doing is just “bending the rules” and not “breaking the law.” Their plan might actually be ingenious, if it wasn’t also unethical, immoral and illegal. But the women don’t seem to fully comprehend that – or don’t want to.

It’s up to supermarket loss prevention officer Ken Miller (Paul Walter Hauser) and U.S. Postal Inspector Simon Kilmurry (Vince Vaughn) to uphold the rules, and the laws. Once they team up, they become the second duo in what amounts to parallel buddy comedies – the two coupon criminals, and the two crime-fighters determined to stop them.

The movie is outrageous but affecting, farcical but relatable – it has plenty of wacky moments but also aims to remain grounded in reality. Kilmurry is the most grounded and least flawed of any of the characters, as he stands up for what’s right and doesn’t waver. “I value the law,” he proclaims at one point. “Just because you want a little more out of life does not give you an excuse to break those laws.” Miller is the crime-fighting comic relief, who alternately suffers from feelings of inadequacy, and delusions of grandeur, seeing himself as the top coupon cop who’s the only one knowledgeable enough to bring the coupon queenpins down – even if, in the movie’s most outrageous scene, it means his, er, “bodily regularity” kicks in at the most inopportune time.

The movie’s trailer contains a jailhouse scene, and the movie itself opens with a SWAT team raiding Connie’s house, so it’s not giving anything away to say that the women do get caught. So the moral of the story must be that coupon crime doesn’t pay, right?

Well, not exactly. Classic antiheroes like, say, Walter White or Tony Soprano get you to cheer them on even though they’re terrible people committing terrible crimes like drug running or killing people. Connie and JoJo get you to cheer them on because they’re not terrible people. Misguided, to be sure, but they’re also charismatic, fun, funny – and they’re “only” committing coupon crime. “Can you believe they are calling what we did fraud?” Connie wonders incredulously at one point, leaving you to wonder whether she just doesn’t get it, or whether she’s managed to delude herself into justifying her wrongdoing.

She and JoJo are still likable enough, in a bumbling kind of way, that you’re meant to want to root for them. It’s just unclear whether you’re also supposed to side with them – against society, against economic inequality, and against those big bad companies making “bazillions of dollars.” Connie and JoJo are like the devils on your shoulder, concocting their crimes and rationalizing their actions with a persuasive twinkle in their eyes, perpetuating stereotypes about how stealing from big corporations isn’t really stealing at all, but is instead more about empowerment, or “beating the system,” or something. You’re left to wonder whether that’s the movie’s perspective, or just theirs.

It’s certainly not the perspective of Miller and Kilmurry, the angels on your other shoulder. They’re the antagonists of the antiheroes, but you’re also rooting for them. The men are somewhat bumbling in their own way, but the main difference is that they’re standing up for what’s right as they try to bring the women to justice.

And when you’re dealing in right and wrong, and black and white, everyone can’t win. In this movie, though, everyone kind of does. They all better themselves in the end and seem to get what they truly want out of life. But three of the four main characters wind up making some pretty surprising moral compromises to get there, and the women don’t seem particularly remorseful or chastened by the consequences of their actions. So you might ultimately be left wondering whether you were wrong to have rooted for any of them at all. In some ways, it reflects reality in all its untidiness and ambiguity. In other ways, it reminds you that this is fiction – a light comedy that’s meant to be enjoyed, not a profound movie with a moral and a message. “Who won and who lost through all of this?” Connie muses near the end. “I guess that’s really for you to decide.”

It’s a bit of a cop-out. But, as they say, whether it’s reality TV or the movies – that’s entertainment.

Queenpins opens in select Cinemark theaters on Friday, September 10, and streams on Paramount+ beginning September 30.

Image source: STXfilms

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