People like consistency, and having a regular routine or ritual can be calming and therapeutic. Watching the same program at the same time every night doesn’t have the urgency it used to before the advent of streaming and on-demand, but it’s reliable and doesn’t change, unlike so much else in life. Quiz Lady presents a protagonist who hasn’t found much purpose aside from sitting and watching her favorite quiz show every night with her dog and takes her on a wild and joyously entertaining ride as she unwillingly wades into something resembling real life.
Anne (Awkwafina) has been largely abandoned by her family members, following her father’s departure early on, her sister leaving for exciting but ultimately lackluster career opportunities, and her mother’s gambling addiction. Throughout all that, two things have been by her side: Mr. Linguini, the dog her sister left her with, and her favorite quiz show, hosted by the bow tie-wearing Terry McTeer (WIll Ferrell). When Anne’s sister Jenny (Sandra Oh) comes barreling back into her life and her dog gets taken hostage due to her mother’s debt, she soon finds herself going for something she’s never even considered: being a contestant on the show that’s meant so much to her for years.
This is a film that emphasizes comedy above all else, and there’s just as much in the background as there is presented front-and-center for audiences to clearly notice. Anne works at a company called C.P. Yay! Accounting Services, where she’s regularly ignored by her coworkers, some of whom even come to eat their lunches right by her desk so that the food smells won’t linger in their cubicles. She sets an alarm to remember to stretch that reads “Stand Up So You Don’t Get Blood Clots and Die,” indicating a dark sense of humor with only herself as an audience.
Everything changes when Jenny bursts in, first seen in the distance as she gets hit by a car since it’s her world and everyone else is just moving in it. Unlike her sister, who is far too aware of how everyone around her is just waiting to be a disappointment, Jenny believes she can get anything she wants. She proudly shares that she sued a restaurant after finding a bone in her fish filet, and regularly details ways to get things for free and to distract others to get out of sticky situations. The two go about achieving their aims in totally different ways, and their most unifying trait is that neither has gotten very far.
Anne and Jenny may be an unlikely duo, but Awkwafina and Oh certainly aren’t. While they’ve both won accolades for roles that lean dramatic with some comedy thrown in, they’re exceptionally skilled comedians. Oh is loudest and leans into the physical comedy, something she’s very adept at and doesn’t always get to show when it’s her sarcasm and wit on display, and it’s fun to see a shift midway through the film when Awkwafina makes what could have been an eye-rolling drug-taking scene incredibly worthwhile thanks to her mastery of deadpan and comedic timing. Calling McTeer “dad” by accident when she’s first introduced on the show is subtler but just as funny.
The substance of Quiz Lady isn’t entirely solid, and there are a few plot points that feel underdeveloped, like Jenny pushing Anne into the trunk of her car to drive her kicking and screaming to her audition and the cartoonish mobster who holds Mr. Linguini hostage. But the humor is there in full force, which makes up for any holes in logic that could otherwise derail it. Director Jessica Yu has a firm sense of the story she’s telling, and it’s nice to be enveloped in this game show world, which glistens with magic and excitement, not relegated to the typical cinematic fate of being a tremendous letdown with subversive motivations driving it. Screenwriter Jen D’Angelo gives the performers entertaining dialogue to deliver that stands out more than the sometimes shaky story, particularly the banter between sisters. When Jenny tells Anne that she’s a 28-year-old woman living the life of a 95-year-old widower, Anne claps back that she’s 33 and wonders why she always has to be a man in Jenny’s insults.
Awkwafina and Oh are terrific together, and they’re supported by a cast that includes a few fun standouts. Holland Taylor is miserable and funny as Anne’s eternally angry neighbor, and Jason Schwartzman dials up the sleaze as a long-running contestant who becomes Anne’s nemesis. Will Ferrell moderates McTeer’s energy to just the right decibel, making him the perfect blend of inspiring and dependable for Anne to idolize. Tony Hale, who played a far more despicable game show host this year in Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour, delivers many laughs as a Philadelphia motel manager who spars with Jenny about the Ben Franklin impersonation he offers when he’s behind the desk.
This is a story about a quiz show but it’s much more about the personalities involved, with Anne frequently spouting off answers that she knows from years and years of having watched the show. Longtime fans of Jeopardy and similar programs may enjoy this fare, but it’s more of a buddy comedy that knows when to go all in on its humor. Like so many recent streaming releases, this one is best experienced with a large group of friends or family who can delight in laughing together.
This review is from AFI FEST 2023. Quiz Lady will be on Hulu November 3.
Photo: Michele K Short / 20th Century Studios