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