There’s nothing like coming home from school and settling down in front of the TV for back-to-back game shows. Spending time with my parents watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune every night was a tradition and one of the memories that sticks out most when I think about my childhood and the time I spent with them. In Quiz Lady, Anne’s (Awkwafina) childhood is encompassed by that same tradition, watching “Can’t Stop the Quiz” hosted by Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell). Terry and his ever-changing bow ties played a much more significant role in Anne’s childhood than any time spent with her parents. Instead of watching the show with them, Anne turned up the volume to drown out the sound of her parents’ marriage falling apart.
Years later, a lot has changed for Anne, but some things have stayed the same, too. She’s estranged from her family and stuck in an office cubicle all day. She’s an awkward loner, but incredibly intelligent. After all her experience watching “Can’t Stop the Quiz,” she’s able to guess all the answers correctly. Watching it is still a reprieve, but she no longer watches the show alone: she has her dog, Linguini. She could easily be the show’s top contestant - and she might just have to give it a shot. When she gets saddled with handling her mother’s gambling debts, and Linguini is kidnapped because of it, entering the show seems like the only quick option to earn cash. She’ll have to become the “Quiz” champion that she was always destined to be, despite how much that terrifies her.
Jessica Yu’s latest film, now on Hulu, has many strong bits of comedy but is never funny throughout. That has a lot to do with writer Jen D’Angelo’s focus being aimed more at the relationship at the film’s center. Estranged sisters getting together is always an uncomfortable affair, but even more so when money and a kidnapping are involved. Jenny (Sandra Oh), Anne’s older sister, is the complete opposite in personality and appearance. While Anne likes to pull attention away from herself thanks to a drab wardrobe, Jenny loves to dress like a teenager having too much fun with her new colourful extensions. She’s washed up; someone with a Hollywood dream that didn’t work out. But maybe she can help her sister achieve her own.
Awkwafina as a comedian has been very hit-or-miss for me, as she often tries too hard in her more comedic roles to the point where her performance ends up being more of an annoyance. Her performance here, much like in The Farewell, leans more heavily on drama, which in turn is much more effective for the role. However, she can still play off naturally to Oh’s wacky Jenny. Oh is the opposite of Awkwafina, known more for her dramatic roles than comedic ones, so it’s fun to see her let loose here - delivering most of the laughs and having so much fun doing it. It also goes without saying that Ferrell owns the part of game show host, making you wonder why he’s never hosted a real game show. Jason Schwartzman is great competition for Awkwafina’s Anne as Ron, the longest-running Quiz champion. Holland Taylor also has several scenes as Anne’s cranky, busy-body neighbor Francine.
At times Quiz Lady can feel like any other studio comedy, hitting familiar beats, like one scene involving getting high. But the game show premise and relationship between the sisters elevate the film to something quite charming. Oh and Awkwafina are an excellent pairing, not only as scene partners but their characters build a relationship that’s endearing throughout. Both represent a feeling relatable to most: being stuck. Jenny doesn’t know what she wants to do because chasing her one dream has meant constant failure, whereas Anne is simply existing. She just goes through the motions without any excitement, something most people in the corporate world would know. To get an even deeper sense of their characters, it would have been beneficial to explore their childhood more. It would have made the film stronger, too, especially by looking at the relationship with their mother and how the estrangement between the sisters has affected them. However, they do get moments where they reflect on times spent together, which creates a very heartfelt ending. It’s interesting to see their relationship go from fragmented and then back to the relationship they once had as kids, with the biggest test for them proving to have nothing to do with trivia but learning to forgive.