Movie Review ~ Queen Bees

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Helen is an independent widow who moves into the Pine Grove Senior Community and discovers it’s just like high school – full of cliques and flirtatious suitors.

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Ann-Margret, Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Elizabeth Mitchell, Matthew Barnes, Christopher Lloyd, French Stewart, Alec Mapa

Director: Michael Lembeck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I normally wouldn’t mention this because it has little to do with the movie proper, but when I fired up the online screener for Queen Bees I noticed that the file was titled At Last.  Having recently received the wrong link for another movie I paused, wondering if the same thing had happened again.  Deciding to forge ahead to see what I might have received instead, the mystery deepened as the movie began with the title Never Too Late.  What was going on?  Now I was really confused.  At least Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn is one of the first things we see once the film actually begins so I was able to relax and know a mistake wasn’t made in the screening factory.  However, the triple title snafu proved a harbinger of just how much Queen Bees can’t decide what type of film it wants to be.

Still regal as she approaches her 90th year, Burstyn (Pieces of a Woman) seems to always be game for trying out different genres and colorful characters and cantankerous Helen is no different.  Continuing to live alone in her house though her concerned daughter (Elizabeth Mitchell, The Purge: Election Year) would rather she sell it and move to a nearby retirement community, she finally agrees to a month’s stay at Pine Grove Senior Community after a fire causes damage to her kitchen.  {Side note: what kind of senior residential community just allows for an extended stay in a furnished unit? Aren’t we always hearing in films how precious these properties are?} Owly and not happy about being displaced from her home, at first Helen doesn’t bother getting to know people around Pine Grove but after some encouragement from her adult grandson of indeterminate age (Matthew Barnes) she forms a friendship with the ladies in her bridge group.

Well, almost all the ladies.  Known as the Queen Bees (“the ‘B’ stands for”…you know the drill) by the other residents, the women sit where they want and rule the roost around Pine Grove.  In actuality, it’s Janet (Jane Curtin, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who is the chief mean girl with Sally (Loretta Devine, Urban Legend) and Margot (Ann-Margret, Kaye Ballard – The Show Goes On) mostly her silent followers.  Helen’s arrival inspires Sally and Margot to be more vocal toward Janet, driving a wedge between their once-tight bond.  Out for revenge, Janet makes several nasty moves to keep her status, which has a cascading effect on Helen’s relationship with her family and a new man (James Caan, The Gambler) that’s been successfully wooing her with his charm.

Let’s start with the good.  You can hardly ask for a better cast to carry this old folks comedy with jokes far creakier than the septuagenarians (and upward!) who are telling them.  Burstyn manages to bring some depth to the screenplay from Donald Martin and Harrison Powell which often comes off like a television movie of the week instead of one intended for a larger audience.  That might make sense considering Martin’s history of writing Hallmark movies and director Michael Lembeck working almost exclusively in television sitcoms with only the occasionally feature film on his resume. It’s no great acting exercise for Burstyn at the end of the day but you can see she’s not phoning it in, either.

I wish I could say the same for Caan.  Obviously dealing with some back issues (you can see a rigid brace holding upright), Caan looks uncomfortable and not just because of any lumbago that might be flaring up.  To be fair, he’s often struggled with playing second banana to strong women and with this movie already being light as a feather you can hardly blame the guy for swinging by to say his lines and pick up his check.  As always, Devine is a riot when she wants to be but can turn on a dime to pull at your heartstrings and if anything, Queen Bees just proves again we don’t have enough Ann-Margret in our lives.  Her tender relationship with Christopher Lloyd’s character suffering from dementia is unexpectedly heartbreaking.  It more than makes up for sticking Lloyd (Nobody) in a stunningly bad, on purpose, toupee.  Though I love Curtin, she’s always come off as a solid television actress to me and I think she makes the most out of an unrelentingly mean character.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention just how truly terrible French Stewart is as the director of the senior center.  How we allowed him to become a TV star back in the day (co-starring with Curtin on 3rd Rock from the Sun) is something we all have to live with.

It’s obvious the movie has gone through some significant editing to get it to where it is now and that gives it a bit of a gangly energy, never able to sit with a theme or emotion for too long.  One moment, it’s a drama about Burstyn struggling to come to terms with moving on from her perceived independence, the next it’s a comedy involving pot smoking grandmas, then we have your expected cancer diagnosis, but wait, we’re back to more adventures of the old ladies foiling a purse thief.  Somewhere, there’s a through line that would indicate some steady plot that focuses on Burstyn’s story or is more aware of sharing the wealth, but in the end only a few loose ends feel tied off appropriately.

The ups and downs of Queen Bees can be distracting at times, but I have to tell you, I don’t regret watching it for one second.  These are fine performers and good acting is good acting – I’d take an up-for-anything Ellen Burstyn performance in a middling comedy way before I’d sign up for another Adam Sandler mess, that’s for sure.  For me, it’s nice to have something I can recommend to my mom and her friends that won’t give me pause – and that’s not a dig at the movie…or my mom’s taste in movies.