The Quiz Lady movie produced by Jessica Yu and written by Jen D’Angelo, has a tone similar to that of a classic ’90s buddy comedy like Penelope Spheeris’ “Black Sheep,” with its mix of silly sight gags, snappy one-liners, and touching interpersonal drama. Sandra Oh’s undeniable charisma is primarily responsible for the film’s success, despite the fact that director Yu doesn’t always achieve the right balance between the film’s wacky physical comedy and heartfelt family drama.
Dressed in beige, with slumped shoulders Anne (Awkwafina), an accountant in her thirties, has been glued to “Can’t Pause The Quiz,” a program similar to “Jeopardy!”, ever since when she was just four years old, on the night that her father departed and didn’t come back. The one constant in Anne’s life, other than her fat pug Linguini, is the soothing presence of presenter Terry McTeer (which will Ferrell, portraying the role like a mix between his “SNL” parody on Alex Trebek & Master Rogers). She has a morning alarm collection, despite the fact she’s on the sofa every night by 7 o’clock.
A miscommunication at her mom’s nursing home drives her flighty, alienated sister Jenny (Oh) to come, like a hurricane in a short black dress and blue-highlighted the hair, prepared to weep, only to learn their mom hasn’t truly died; she’s just gone to Macau on her most recent gaming excursion. Jenny, now unemployed, explains to Anne that she is “focusing on herself and creating the life that she desires” as she sneaks back into the family home. A bookie abducts he to collect on their mother’s $80,000 debt when a video Jenny publishes of Anne memorizing all the answers during a quiz show episode goes viral. After exhausting all other options, they settle on Anne making an appearance on “Can’t Quit The Quiz.”
The remainder of “Quiz Lady” has Jenny and Anne getting into more absurd situations. They take an airplane to Pennsylvania for a selection, but the only place they can find to stay is a Ben Benjamin-themed inn owned by a Ben Franklin mimic (Tony Hale, being both ridiculous and wistfully quiet). Jenny offers Anne medication to help her relax before the audition, and Anne ends up high. Jenny squares up against the bookie & his crew. Anne squares up against an arrogant player who is on a near-record-breaking win run (played by Jason Schwartzman, who grins for the lens a bit too much rather than building a true character).
Oh and Awkwafina create a tense sibling chemistry throughout all of this, as their childhood memories and traumas intersect and stir up a wide range of conflicting feelings. Unfortunately, Awkwafina’s restrained performance sometimes borders on one-note. She is never able to portray what is really going on behind the scenes for Anne, with the exception of the very enjoyable drug trip section. Oh, on the contrary, he seems to be having a great time in the role of this sexy mess.
She performs the broadest comic moments with ease and aced her pratfalls. Yes, on the other hand, is able to see beyond Jenny’s superficiality and into her depths of pain, love, and complexity.As Jenny and Anne strive toward gathering cash to pay off her mom’s debt and rescue Linguini, they also attempt to mend what’s broken but not definitely broken. With each flashback, D’Angelo’s writing deftly exposes additional information about these defining moments, frequently alternating between Anne’s and Jenny’s points of view. Anne, who is ten years younger than her sister, had a difficult time seeing beyond her dismay in Jenny to appreciate all the ways Jenny attempted to make her life easier.
It’s the poignant moments of sisterly affection that really set “Quiz Lady” apart from other comedies, despite the fact that the film’s slapstick aspects (mostly) connect (and have the world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival leaving audiences in stitches). As are the ones with Will Ferrell as the presenter; he might have easily sunk into parody, but instead delivers one of his more nuanced and heartfelt performances since “Stranger Than Fiction.” Anne, overcome with stage fright, takes his advice and forgets about winning in favor of the memories she’ll take away from the experience. It’s a lesson we can all apply to our heart, and it’s just what she wants to hear.