Eccentric, energetic, and frequently laugh out loud hilarious, Quiz Lady makes wonderful use of sharp writing and a pair of perfectly cast stars working against their usual type. Breezy and simple, but with a perfect balance of inspired gags and well orchestrated sentimentality, Quiz Lady is a feel good movie for a world that feels resolutely awful at the moment. Director Jessica Yu (who has an extensive television background) and writer Jen D’Angelo (Totally Killer, Hocus Pocus 2) aren’t mounting something that’s breaking any new ground for the “mismatched siblings” genre of comedies, but they are clever enough to know which staples work fine on their own and which could deal with a healthy bit of tweaking and subversion. It feels familiar as a whole, but the individual beats within Quiz Lady are what set it apart from the pack.
Anne Yum (Awkwafina) is a shy, timid accountant who lives for 7pm every night, when she curl up alongside her senior pug, Mr. Linguini, and watch her favourite long running game show, Can’t Stop the Quiz, hosted by her loveably square idol, Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell). Ever since childhood, the show has been a balm to soothe her tumultuous upbringing, and she’s become a trivia genius as a result of her religious viewing. Anne’s mundane routine is upended, however, when her gambling addicted mother is kicked out of her assisted living facility for running away with her boyfriend to Macau. This brings about the resurfacing of Anne’s semi-estranged trainwreck of an older sister, Jenny (Sandra Oh), a failed actress who never takes responsibility for anything and refuses to act her age. Needing someplace to crash for a bit, Jenny imposes upon Anne, and decides to shoot and upload a video of her sister answering all the questions on the quiz show with lightning speed and perfect accuracy. The clip turns into an immediate viral sensation – something Anne absolutely doesn’t want – and brings unwanted attention from dognapping mobsters their mom owes $80,000. With Mr. Linguini now in danger, it’s up to Anne to find a way onto the quiz show to make some cash, and Jenny to help her sister overcome crippling self doubt, stage fright, and anxiety.
There hasn’t been a comedic plot line that I can think of in recent memory that has been as simple, yet amusing as the one D’Angelo has come up with for Quiz Lady. In a positive way, trying to explain the plot of Quiz Lady sounds like summarizing a film from the mid-90s and not 2023. Yu directs with an appropriately devil-may-care sensibility that serves such a high concept, familial based road movie rather well. Quiz Lady has a lot of energy built primarily around zany slapstick that shows off the stars’ skill with physical comedy or outrageously written conversations and reminiscing that make the most of their talents as sharp wits. There’s a lot of fluid movement in the cinematography, which is a nice touch, but hardly necessary for a comedy pitched at this level. And the make-up and costuming choices throughout are glorious, particularly Jenny’s wide ranging, but always slightly inappropriate wardrobe and the blinding white veneers sported by Jason Schwartzman, who plays one of the villains here as the quiz show’s smarmy, phoney, record setting current champion.
Yu’s directorial efforts and technical flourishes are more than enough to disguise the fact that not everything in Quiz Lady works, as it tends to barrel from one set piece to another in rapid succession, en route to a narratively clunky final act. It’s always pleasing, and it thankfully never stands still long enough for viewers to wonder how all of this could be possible. A big part of the equation towards not feeling like a stock, assembly line comedy comes also from D’Angelo’s ability to take scenes that have been done in movies like this before – near miss car accidents, someone trying to bluff mobsters, drug trips, surreal and creepy budget boutique hotel stays – and push them into unexpected territory. Most of the scenes in Quiz Lady have a familiarity, but it’s always able to stave off complete predictability by switching up the punchlines.
That ability to move its comedic targets to slightly different positions also extends to the film’s emotional and dramatic beats. Viewers can again be forgiven for thinking they’ve heard the one about the responsible adult and their wild child sibling before, but not in the way Quiz Lady handles those archetypes. It’s never in much doubt that Anne and Jenny will be able to find some common ground between them, but the ways in which they come closer together are refreshing and unexpected, particularly the way the film handles a nasty little family secret, which is framed as both a gross out gag and a tender moment that evolves and changes throughout the course of the film. Like everything else here, the beats that tug at the heartstrings are pleasant surprises.
But material that holds conventionality and spontaneity in such equal esteem is only as good as its leads, and Oh and Awkwafina more than hold up their end of the film. After her stunning and low key turn in The Farewell, it’s not surprising that Awkwafina would be able to slip into the shoes of a socially awkward, low key loner that’s removed from the kinds of boisterous personalities she’s often tasked with playing, but she’s able to make sure that Anne is still funny and not a wimpy push-over capable of being steamrolled into situations simply because someone asks her to take part in them. If anything, Anne has to be dragged kicking and screaming into every bad decision her sister makes, which Awkwafina plays perfectly. And the casting of Oh as her “ageless” older sister is an inspired choice, and a chance for the actress to simply go off and be as unhinged and uncouth as she wants to be; clearly relishing the chance to play an outright boorish doofus with a heart of gold. And Oh’s performance is elevated by being put against Awkwafina, who already knows how to play the Jenny-type role in her sleep. Awkwafina knows exactly what Oh is going for, and is a generous enough talent to play along with every gag to perfection.
Comfy as an old pair of sneakers, Quiz Lady is easy to get into and lounge around with. It’s comfort food, but made with a considerable amount of craft and dedication on the part of everyone involved. These days, good comedies that hit a real sweet spot feel like they’re in short supply. It might only be a little different than other films of its ilk, but it’s no less worthy of a small celebration thanks to the fact that it’s actually well made and memorable.
Quiz Lady is available to stream in Canada on Disney+ and in the US on Hulu starting Friday, November 3, 2023.
Join our list
Subscribe to our mailing list and get weekly updates on our latest contests, interviews, and reviews.