Now streaming on:
“Quiz Lady,” directed by Jessica Yu from a screenplay by Jen D’Angelo, plays a bit like an old-school '90s buddy comedy a la Penelope Spheeris' “Black Sheep,” oscillating between wacky sight gags, zippy one-liners, and heartfelt relationship drama. While Yu doesn’t always balance the zany physical comedy and earnest family drama she aims for, and D’Angelo’s script is packed with far too many threads, the film works largely thanks to the irrepressible charm of star Sandra Oh.
Beige-clad, stooped-shouldered Anne (Awkwafina), a thirtysomething accountant, has watched every episode of "Can't Stop The Quiz," a "Jeopardy!"-like nightly quiz show, since she was four years old—the night her father left and never came back. Aside from her obese pug Linguini, the only constant in Anne’s continually disappointing life is the calming presence of host Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell, playing the character a bit like a cross between his "SNL" riff on Alex Trebek and Mister Rogers). Even though she’s always on the couch promptly at 7 p.m., she has an alarm set just in case.
A misunderstanding at her mom’s nursing home leads her flighty, estranged sister Jenny (Oh) to arrive, like a whirlwind in a tight black dress and blue-highlighted hair, ready to grieve, only to discover their mom hasn’t actually died; she’s just fled to Macau on her latest gambling trip. Unemployed, Jenny tells Anne she’s “focusing on her energy and manifesting the life [she] wants” as she not-so-quietly moves back into their house. After a video Jenny posts of Anne reciting all the correct answers during an episode of the quiz show goes viral, a bookie kidnaps Linguini, demanding they pay off their mom’s $80k debt. Desperate, the two decide their only option is to have Anne appear on "Can't Stop The Quiz."
The rest of "Quiz Lady" sees Jenny and Anne in one madcap situation after another. They road trip to Philadelphia for an audition but can only book a room in a Ben Franklin-themed inn run by a Ben Franklin impersonator (a silly yet somehow wistfully understated Tony Hale). Anne gets high on the drugs Jenny gives her to calm her anxiety during the audition. Jenny has a face-off with the bookie and his gang. Anne has a face-off with a smug contestant (Jason Schwartzman, who mugs for the camera a little too much instead of crafting a real character) on a near-record-breaking winning streak.
During all of this, Oh and Awkwafina craft a prickly sibling chemistry, where shared memories and traumas from their childhood collide, evoking a myriad of mixed emotions. Unfortunately, Awkwafina’s muted performance often borders on one-note. Other than the particularly delightful drug trip sequence, she’s never able to convey what’s really going on under the surface for Anne. Oh, on the other hand, is clearly having a blast playing this hot mess. She nails her pratfalls and plays the comedy as broad as possible with aplomb. However, Oh can also find the hurt, love, and complexity beneath Jenny’s superfluous surface.
As Jenny and Anne work towards raising funds to pay off their mom’s debt and save Linguini, they also work to fix what's bent but not necessarily broken. D’Angelo’s script cleverly reveals more information about these pivotal moments with each flashback, often showing events from Anne's POV first and Jenny's second. With a ten-year age gap, Anne’s memories are often skewed, only able to focus on her disappointment in Jenny, unable to see the many ways her sister tried to make life easier for her.
While the film’s slapstick elements (mostly) land (and had the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in stitches), it’s the more dramatic moments of sisterly love where "Quiz Lady" shines brightest. As are the scenes with Ferrell as the host, who could easily have gone straight to parody with this role but instead gives one of his most nuanced, soulful performances since “Stranger Than Fiction.” Advising a stage-struck Anne, he tells her not to focus on winning but instead to think about the memories she hopes to carry with her. It’s exactly what she needs to hear and a message we could all take to heart.
This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "Quiz Lady" premieres exclusively on Hulu on November 3rd.
Awkwafina as Anne
Sandra Oh as Jenny
Jason Schwartzman as Ron
Will Ferrell as Terry
Angela Trimbur as Marge
Joe Chrest as Actor
Charlie Talbert as Sleazy Tom
Ginger Cressman as Game Show Contestant
Amy Tolsky as Leah