Review: Quiz Lady — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Quiz Lady is fitfully engaging, with episodes of legitimate hilarity and some well-earned sentiment. But those moments are as rare as a five-time Jeopardy! champion.

Quiz Lady (TIFF/20th Century Studios)

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Quiz Lady  

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

Stars: Sandra Oh, Awkwafina, Will Ferrell, Holland Taylor

Writer: Jen D’Angelo

Director: Jessica Yu

Streaming on Hulu

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival


The most disappointing movies are the ones that make promises which, despite everyone’s most valiant efforts, they just can’t keep.

I settled in fully expecting to love Quiz Lady starring Sandra Oh and Awkwafina — two truly gifted screen actors playing mismatched sisters who try to pay off their mother’s enormous gambling debts by going on a TV quiz show. Holland Taylor, a National Treasure if ever there was one, plays their grumpy neighbor. And Will Ferrell pops up as the quiz show host, channeling the late Alex Trebek while gently lampooning the longtime Jeopardy! host’s gentle, Mr. Rogers-ish demeanor. Plus, there’s Jason Schwartzman as a haughty game show champ and Tony Hale as an innkeeper who seems to believe he’s the reincarnation of Ben Franklin.

So forgive me for damning the film with faint praise: Quiz Lady is fitfully engaging, with episodes of legitimate hilarity and some well-earned sentiment. But those moments are as rare as a five-time Jeopardy! champion — and the film works much too hard to get to them in what should have been a breezy lark.

Director Jessica Yu — an Oscar-winning documentarian who subsequently made her career directing TV drama episodes — probably thought her most risky decision was casting her stars against type: Oh, who for an entire decade starred as a no-nonsense doctor on TV’s Gray’s Anatomy, plays Jenny, a footloose bohemian who has never seen a responsibility not worth shirking. And Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), a rap singer whose screen roles usually involve lots of irreverent wisecracks and a palpable resentment of authority, plays Anne, a dog-loving homebody who, when she’s not hunkered down in her end-of-the-row office cubicle, is glued to her TV watching Can’t Stop the Quiz, a long-running game show which she has, over the years, totally mastered.

Remarkably, despite the risk, that casting against type is the thing that works best about Quiz Lady: It’s almost as if both Oh and Awkwafina have been waiting all their lives to cut loose in roles like these, and it’s clear they’re enjoying every minute of it.

Unfortunately, they’re having more fun than we are. It seems like the chief culprit here is the script by Jen D’Angelo, who may know how to write a punchy TV sitcom (Young Rock, Happy Together) but struggles with sustaining a story arc longer than 30 minutes without repeating herself. Besides that, while you’d expect a sitcom writer’s jokes to land pretty well, here the cast keeps enunciating lines that are clearly meant to be funny, but simply are not (“My armpits are like Niagara Falls,” says Awkwafina, holding a beat for the laugh that will never, ever come).

Likewise, when a flashback to a gross and embarrassing event that occurred decades earlier emerges out of nowhere, the whole thing seems out of place. It is neither funny nor poignant — more like the kind a placeholder a writer might dash out with every intention of later coming up with something better. Remember Phoebe Cates’s absolutely awful, deadeningly tone-deaf “Santa Claus in the chimney” monologue in Gremlins? Yeah, this is that bad.

There are people who never miss a Will Ferrell movie, and Quiz Lady will give them every reason to turn out for this one. In a movie mainly populated by bickering, usually angry people, Ferrell’s sweetly stuffy quiz show host, a guy who remembers the name of every contestant he’s met over 30 years on the air, is a character you want to hug and not let go. Holland is underused as the neighbor, and a promise of making her a more pivotal character near the end is rudely pulled out from under her. Hale plays the courtly, period-obsessed innkeeper as a cross between his old Arrested Development character Buster and Chris Elliott’s clueless mayor on Schitt’s Creek.

It’s no secret that Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens makes a surprise and funny cameo, filmed just a month before his death. While the film is no grand prize winner, with that, at least, Quiz Lady leaves us with a lovely parting gift.

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