“Queen Bees” is “Mean Girls” in a nursing home — it says so right in the trailer, when Ellen Burstyn’s character describes the clique that rules her assisted-living facility as “mean girls, only with medical alert bracelets.” Well, there are worse ideas for movies and certainly worse casts, and Michael Lembeck’s genial, predictable comedy rolls along on well-worn tracks elevated by the class and commitment of actors who’ve earned our affection over decades of work.
Burstyn plays Helen, a widow living contentedly and cantankerously on her own until a kitchen fire sends her to nearby Pine Grove for what she assumes is a month of home repairs. She’s hardly prepared for what she finds: swarms of senior ladies descending on a new male arrival (Christopher Lloyd) with casseroles in their hands and lust in their eyes, and a troika of women who call the shots and hog the best table in the lunchroom. They are warm-hearted Sally (Loretta Devine); ditzy, sexed-up Margot (Ann-Margret); and Janet (Jane Curtin), queen of the queen bees and a woman who looks like she was weaned on a pickle. When Helen complains that Pine Grove is as bad as high school, Sally replies, “It’s worse. With high school, you graduate. Here, you die.”
The screenplay, by Donald Martin and Harrison Powell, is just clever enough to clear the TV-movie bar, and the cast — Burstyn and Curtin especially — bat the dialogue around with feeling. Burstyn, now 88 and like her character no shrinking violet, invests Helen with a pride, intelligence, and sensitivity that renders a potential sitcom figure fully formed — the actress deserves better, but she’s already had it.
When James Caan turns up as Dan, a potential romantic partner, “Queen Bees” starts to shift from comedy toward sentiment, and, again, the players bring a charm and dignity that are out of proportion to the proceedings but still good to have around. Caan, younger than his costar but looking more frail, cuts a moving figure — a one-time rascal hobbled by age but still willing to learn to dance.
Lembeck’s direction is blandly functional, and secondary characters like the facility’s director (Curtin’s old “Third Rock from the Sun” costar French Stewart), Helen’s meddlesome daughter (Elizabeth Mitchell), and her adoring college-age grandson (Matthew Barnes) just hit their assigned marks. The jokes about “sweaty underboobs” and the like are forced — then again, what do I know? — and you can set your watch by the appearance of the scene where the grannies fire up a doobie and get the munchies. “Queen Bees” overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes, with cooked-up complications and a lot of earnest, overwritten speeches that tell us what we and the characters have already figured out.
Yet the end credits cheer the soul: a photo montage of real-life senior wedding celebrations, proof that there’s never a good time to call it quits, for actors or anyone else.
Directed by Michael Lembeck. Written by Donald Martin and Harrison Powell. Starring Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Ann-Margret, Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine. Available on demand. 102 minutes. PG-13 (pot-smoking, sex talk, a little cussing)