2021, R, 110 min. Directed by Aron Gaudet, Gita Pullapilly. Starring Kristen Bell, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Paul Walter Hauser, Joel McHale, Bebe Rexha, Vince Vaughn, Dayo Okeniyi.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 17, 2021
A passion for extreme couponing turns into a full-bore, “pink-collar” criminal enterprise in this ladies-do-crime comedy reteaming Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, former colleagues on NBC’s The Good Place. First impressions are not great: The dopey title and poster design read Redbox reject, while the film’s opening minutes lack much zip. Writer/director team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, whose last feature film credit was the 2013 festival drama Beneath the Harvest Sky, kick off the film with an ill-considered flash-forward (why spoil the suspense by presenting a fait accompli future?), then reorients the action to when unhappy housewife Connie (Bell) first hatches a plan to turn a profit off of stolen coupons.
The story, we’re told, is based on true events, and you can imagine the fun a sprightlier filmmaker – Steven Soderbergh, say, or Adam McKay – might have had with the absurd premise, what ripe fruit might have been plucked from the rot that is late-stage capitalism. Save glancing asides (guns sure are easy to buy, the courts sure treat Black and white people differently), Gaudet and Pullapilly skip the social satire to focus on a more personality-driven story.
Alas, the personality at the center is so very flat. The filmmakers dowdy Bell down for the part – all frizzy hair and washed-out eyebrows – but the characterization is just as limp. A former Olympian with fertility issues, Connie has a compelling backstory, but Bell is not an especially compelling presence here – a rare misfire from an actor typically bursting with charisma. As her partner-in-crime, the energetic Howell-Baptiste fares far better; her JoJo feels like a whole person, not just a part. The rest of the cast is studded with interesting actors, including Vince Vaughn (dialed down to a likably low-key setting), and surprise cameos from the likes of Annie Mumolo, Stephen Root, and Jack McBrayer. (One wonders if executive producer Ben Stiller put in some calls?) But the biggest lift the film gets comes courtesy of the third-billed Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya, Cruella). Playing the grocery store employee who first sniffs out some funny business afoot with coupons, Hauser imbues a seemingly mockable character with pathos and supplies the film’s steadiest laughs along the way.