Ellen Burstyn and James Caan are two of our finest actors and it is always nice to see them on screen. While their combined resumes contain some of the best films of the seventies (and a few of the eighties), today’s films are losing their adventurous spirit and, as the years go on, modern Hollywood gives actors of their caliber and age less and less to do.
These days when we see a cast that combines Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin or Diane Keaton it usually means audiences are set for a subpar comedy that embarrasses great thespians with silly slapstick and juvenile humor not fit for “Porky’s.”
“Queen Bees” is the new film that wants to be more than the promise of its premise but fails on many levels.
Burstyn’s Helen is a widowed woman with an adult daughter (Elizabeth Mitchell, a good actress taken prisoner by an underwritten role) who can’t be bothered with her mother.
Helen’s grandson Peter (Matthew Barnes) is completely devoted to her and watches over her, filling the role that his mother should be taking on. Peter is Helen’s connection to the real world and the two keep one another content and happy.
After a fire mishap in her home, Helen goes to live in a retirement community “for just a month” until her house is repaired. Extra damage and costs will cause her to stay longer.
The film finds its title in the form of the three women who rule “Mean Girls”-style over the community, Janet, Sally, and Margot (Jane Curtain, Loretta Devine, and Ann-Margret, respectively).
Curtain’s Janet is a pure bitch and is the reason the trio is called the Queen Bees. Bees stands for bitches, and we will not argue that it should be spelled “B’s.” Perhaps the studio was too skittish to go that route, as it would be too blatant a reference.
Janet has a permanent scowl of disgust toward anything Helen says. It is later revealed why Janet is such an awful person, but it does not make the character any less of a one-noter.
Ann-Margret’s Margot is the stereotypical sex-crazed older woman with a wicked wit. The actress (who is capable of such depth) is wasted in a role that gives her no challenges. When she begins to fall for another resident (Christopher Lloyd), the screenplay promises something poignant but falls prey to phony television sitcom dramatics. “This week on a very special episode of Queen Bees…”
James Caan’s Dan thankfully enters the film as an admirer of Helen. As he begins pursuing and wooing her, the film finds a tenderness that is striking, as Caan and Burstyn’s scenes together are written and performed so naturally that we can’t understand why screenwriter Donald Martin (adapting Harrison A. Powell’s original short story) failed so miserably with every other character and scene.
It is an example of the professionalism and pure talent of both Burstyn and Caan that they can make something profound out of characters who were crafted on only surface levels.
Their scenes together are sweet, moving, and the highlights of this mess of a film.
Former sitcom actor Michael Lembeck has been a television director for decades and it shows. There is no flow to the film as it plods along from scene to scene. The moments of supposed comedy and each dramatic beat are set to a saccharine score from Walter Murphy and bathed in a phony brightness where cinematographer Alice Brooks lights every scene like she is on a soundstage. Every room looks fake even though there are no sets.
“Queen Bees” tries to be sympathetic to its subject but chooses to dumb down what should have been an insightful look at finding peace and companionship in old age.
Ellen Burstyn is magnificent, but she is an actress that cannot be anything less. Nor can James Caan, as he and Burstyn take over the film in their moments together and ground it in reality.
It is a shame the film could not have been better and given this top cast something to sink their teeth into.