Queen Bees. Rated PG, 102 minutes. 3 stars
The omens for Queen Bees were not promising. I hadn't seen any publicity for it, the Australian distributor is small and didn't respond to emails, and it was listed under a different title at the Dendy box office machine when I went to a screening. None of this boded well for a film with several well-respected veterans in the cast.
A cast full of older actors might, sadly, be part of the reason for the lack of fanfare. Audiences of a certain age will swarm to movies with Dames - Maggie Smith, Judi Dench - but evidently Americans like Ellen Burstyn (who won an Oscar for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) and Jane Curtin (3rd Rock from the Sun) don't have the same appeal.
Queen Bees comes from Astute Films, an American company formed with the stated aim of making quality, modestly budgeted films, not blockbuster tentpole movies. Among its offerings have been The Best of Enemies (2019) and 90 Minutes in Heaven (2018). The aim is laudable but the films, of course, must be judged on their own merits.
The high-concept pitch for Queen Bees, to quote a line from Donald Martin's script, could be "Mean Girls with medic-alert bracelets".
Widowed former teacher Helen (Burstyn) lives in the house she shared with her late husband and resists entreaties to sell it, including from her daughter Laura (Elizabeth Mitchell), a real estate agent.
Mother and daughter aren't terribly close but Helen relishes the visits from her grandson Peter (Matthew Barnes), with whom she trades inspirational quotes.
After she locks herself out of her house while cooking and a fire destroys her kitchen, Helen reluctantly agrees to move into the Pine Grove retirement community her daughter has been pushing. But she will only stay for a few weeks, until repairs are completed.
Pine Grove is quite swish, with nice rooms and plenty of activities on offer, but Helen mostly tries to keep to herself, figuring she won't be living there long.
She does, however, encounter the Queen Bees (no prizes for guessing what "B" stands for), self-appointed queens of the place. Janet (Curtin) is the perpetually snarky, bossy leader with Margot (Ann-Margret) and Sally (Loretta Devine) as her sidekicks.
Eventually, Helen thaws a little. Sally invites her to become her bridge partner with the QBs and Helen more than holds her own against Janet.
She also finds herself being wooed by the persistent Dan (James Caan), a recent arrival who, like her, enjoys making floral arrangements. While she cherishes the memory of her husband, perhaps there's something to be said for embracing new possibilities.
But, of course, things are never as happy or simple as they seem.
While Queen Bees is far from a great movie, it's a sweet, often funny one that director Michael Lembeck (The Santa Clause 2) doesn't try to make seem profound.
Some of its elements feel predictable - Seniors can get stoned! Seniors can have active sex lives! Seniors can get tough! Take advantage of life! - but it's nice to spend a pleasant time with a fine bunch of actors. Burstyn and Caan (Misery) are convincing as a potential couple and Curtin knows how to handle a sharp comedy line. Devine (Grey's Anatomy) has some poignant moments, a reminder that, as Bette Davis said, old age ain't for sissies. It's good to see Ann-Margret too: decades after Bye Bye Birdie she still sparkles.
Christopher Lloyd as the resident Lothario doesn't have much screen time: his role might have been reduced in the editing process. Whatever the reason, his minor presence lessens the impact of what should have been a very bittersweet scene.
Despite some average material, the younger supporting cast are good too, including Mitchell (Lost) as Helen's semi-estranged daughter and Barnes as the sympathetic grandson.
Queen Bees is nice and light and doesn't have anything terribly new or profound to say about old age and family - it's a bit sugarcoated - but it's fun and movies aimed at older viewers aren't as numerous as they should be.