Synopsis: A tightly wound, game show-obsessed woman must come together with her chaotic sister to help pay off their mother’s gambling debts.
Stars: Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Jason Schwartzman, Holland Taylor, Tony Hale, Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park, Will Ferrell
Director: Jessica Yu
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: While I don’t claim to play favorites, I have learned who I can depend on in movies/television. These actors will show up in projects that may not blow your mind but will turn in performances that will keep you engaged throughout. With an array of memorably scene-stealing roles in their roster of credits, two actresses that have earned their place on my “must always see” list are Sandra Oh and Awkwafina. Finding out they were co-starring in a Hulu comedy premiering at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival playing reunited sisters moved Quiz Lady high on my list to see while attending the festivities.
Routine and organization are critical to Anne Yum’s life. Her house is in order, she picks up after her dog, and she goes to work diligently at her hum-drum accounting job before coming home to watch Can’t Stop The Quiz, a long-running gameshow hosted by Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell, Spirited). Order goes out the window when the senior living home housing her mom calls Anne to report that her parent has gone missing, which brings her harried big sister Jenny (Sandra Oh, Turning Red) back onto the scene. Not only has their mom vanished, but she’s done so after racking up a massive gambling debt to a local loan shark who now expects the sisters to pay up.
Without the funds to pay and noticing her sister is still an ace at Can’t Stop the Quiz, Jenny hatches a scheme to get Anne (Awkwafina, Renfield) to the auditions for the show so she can defeat the reigning champ (Jason Schwartzman, Asteroid City) and make enough cash to get the creditors off their backs. Thus begins a wacky, whacked-out road trip where the wild sister and the wallflower learn a thing or two about the other as they attempt to help their absent mother but do more for their relationship by the time they get to their destination.
There’s a broad appeal to this very broad comedy written by Jenn D’Angelo (Hocus Pocus 2), but it sadly doesn’t showcase either actor operating at the top of their game. True, there are enough moments in Jessica Yu’s film that give both women opportunities to play outside their comfort zone, but neither look settled in this new space. Oh comes across as really swinging for the cheap seats and whiffing it…yet she never embarrasses herself like other actresses could have. There’s a bit of a desperation in Oh’s desire to break out of her usual role, and it’s admirable, but paired with Awkwafina (who’s a more natural Jenny-type), it feels misaligned. Awkwafina fares better, but I didn’t ever fully buy her as a person so withdrawn or reserved.
I’m going to toss a late-breaking curveball your way. Here are two reasons why I will tell you to 100% see Quiz Lady. The first is for Ferrell giving one of his least Ferrell-y performances and nailing it. As the host of the quiz show Anne idolizes, he has a Fred Rogers charm that isn’t phony or played for laughs. There’s a moment when Terry and Anne get 1:1 time that’s some of the best onscreen work Ferrell has ever done. The second is for a cameo appearance near the end that is bound is get most viewers that grew up in the ’80s a little misty. That it involves national treasure Holland Taylor’s (Bombshell) crotchety next-door neighbor character is even better. Genuine feeling goes a long way, though it can seem at odds with a comedy that often takes on problems it can’t fully solve.