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Review: An AARP ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Queen Bees’ gives Ellen Burstyn a welcome leading role

Ellen Burstyn in “Queen Bees.”
Ellen Burstyn in “Queen Bees.”
(Ray Bengston)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

For the opportunity to see the great Ellen Burstyn in a lead movie role, the buoyant, AARP-friendly comedy “Queen Bees” is alone worth the watch. The enduring, Oscar-winning star of such classic 1970s films as “The Last Picture Show,” “The Exorcist” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” as well as last year’s galvanizing “Pieces of a Woman” (for which she was egregiously overlooked at awards time), Burstyn brings her A-game to the role of Helen, a widow forced to temporarily move into a retirement village after a fire in her longtime home.

The pragmatic, independent Helen — described by her controlling daughter, Laura (Elizabeth Mitchell, quite good), as someone who “burns most of her calories rolling her eyes” — hates the lovely Pine Grove Senior Community on sight, though takes solace in the fact that she’ll only be there for a month. (Uh, don’t take that time frame to the bank.)

But Helen really gets off on the wrong foot when she innocently runs afoul of the so-called Queen Bees, a feisty, tightknit trio — crabby ringleader Janet (Jane Curtin), amorous Margot (Ann-Margret, looking great) and puckish Sally (the always welcome Loretta Devine) — who think they rule the roost. (“They’re like ‘mean girls’ but with medical alert bracelets,” Helen wryly notes.)

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Still, a series of events, including a sudden need for Helen’s ace bridge skills, lead the “Bees” to befriend her and she’s soon part of the hive. Prepare for a bit of rough sledding, though, courtesy of the troublesome Janet.

Meanwhile, a charming widower, Dan (James Caan), pursues the hesitant Helen and a sweet romance develops. But can it last? It’s complicated.

The film, directed by Michael Lembeck (“The Santa Clause 2,” “Tooth Fairy”) from a script by Donald Martin (based on a story by Harrison Powell, a producer here) may not cover any blazingly new territory, features a few contrived obstacles and doesn’t sufficiently explain why Curtin’s Janet is so cruel. But it’s largely such a sincere and diverting look at growing older and how change remains possible — Helen’s journey is particularly well drawn — that it’s easy to forgive the film’s occasional missteps.

The engaging cast also includes Christopher Lloyd as a Pine Grove lothario with memory issues, French Stewart as the facility’s agenda-driven administrator, a nicely toned-down Alec Mapa as the resident masseuse, and a winning Matthew Barnes as Helen’s devoted, protective grandson.

'Queen Bees'

Rated: PG-13, for drug use, suggestive material and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

Playing: Starts June 11, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Town Center, Encino; Laemmle Newhall, Santa Clarita; Laemmle Glendale; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also on Laemmle Virtual Cinema


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