2023 has been an interesting year when it comes to the success and failure of various films. While Disney, with virtually unlimited money and some of the most recognizable brands in history, has seen a string of flops, smaller indie projects have been flourishing with appropriate budgets and solid word-of-mouth. Look no further than horror movies this year, the likes of which have mostly seen some huge returns (especially Five Nights at Freddy’s). It seems people are ready for smaller-scale productions that don’t necessitate years of research to get the most out of them.
That’s what made the prospect of Quiz Lady interesting to me. Knowing little to nothing about the project when I first saw the trailer, I figured it was a lower-budget movie made by a relatively unknown filmmaker who was hoping to capitalize on the contemporary fervor for indie fare. While some of that is maybe true – this movie is very much situated as a smaller production -, there is certainly some big-name talent attached to this that throws a wrench into things. I don’t think you could ever claim that a film starring Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Will Ferrell, and Jason Schwartzman is some kind of underdog story.
However this movie came to be, one thing is certain: Quiz Lady fails to properly utilize its talent and instead shoots for the bare minimum.
Director: Jessica Yu
Release Date: September 9, 2023 (TIFF), October 3, 2023 (Hulu)
Quiz Lady tells the story of Anne (Awkwafina), a 33-year-old single woman who works as a CPA and lives a relatively mundane life. Her childhood is marked with trauma as her father left the family at a young age and her mother was constantly gallivanting around doing God knows what. With her older sister, Jenny (Sandra Oh), not truly respecting her, Anne sinks into the world of “Can’t Stop the Quiz,” a trivia gameshow not dissimilar to Jeopardy! that is hosted by Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell). She has religiously watched the show for more than 20 years and spends each evening tuning in while cuddling up to her dog, a pug named Linguini.
After receiving a call that her mother has gone missing from the nursing home, Anne is reacquainted with Jenny and the two have some unresolved beef. With Jenny shoving herself back into Anne’s life, she catches on to Anne’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of trivia and uploads a video of her knocking out answers while watching “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” The video goes viral and everyone is now calling her “Quiz Lady.” To make matters worse, this newfound viral fame has caused debt collectors to show up at Anne’s workplace. It turns out that Anne’s mother left a rather sizeable debt and now Anne needs to pay it back or these debtors will harm her dog.
While not necessarily marketed strictly as a comedy, the opening half hour or so of Quiz Lady is strangely devoid of laughs. There are some quips meant to be humorous, but with the story beginning on such a dour note, they don’t quite hit their mark. It’s rather sad that Anne’s life is defined by such trauma, which doesn’t really lend itself to something you feel appropriate chuckling at. I know dark comedies are a thing, but I don’t quite know how to process a little girl finding solace in a quiz show as her family disintegrates around her.
Worse, still, is that the character dynamics feel out of whack for the entire first act. While there is an emotional journey the characters and viewer go on together peppered throughout Quiz Lady, it can be rough getting through the opening where Anne and Jenny are practically at each other’s throats. Family can be tough to deal with at times and while I’m not one to judge people on their interpersonal lives, I have no idea why Anne is even tolerating her sister at the start. Jenny, who is a washed-up wannabe actor in her late 40s, is so irresponsible and reckless that she’s more a liability than anything. She and Anne don’t even exchange many pleasantries until roughly an hour in.
So, the film doesn’t hit the ground running, so to speak. Anne lives in a duplex house next to an elderly woman named Francine (Holland Taylor). Their schtick is that Anne wants nothing to do with Francine and Francine wants to bitch about everything. I guess it’s fine, but it just adds to the confusing dynamics present at the start. Quiz Lady feels like the same kind of comedy that has been happening since the 90s, just with even more cynicism.
Getting back to the plot, Jenny finds a spark of inspiration when helping someone at a coffee shop and decides she’ll become a life coach. Her first task is helping Anne turn her life around, which takes the form of kidnapping her (with the help of Francine, naturally) to drive her to an audition for “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” The film then shifts to a road trip movie and finally starts to pick up the pace.
Scattered throughout most of the dialogue are quick little jokes relating to feminism and patriarchy. Jenny tries to use her “charm” to manipulate people into doing what she needs and she’ll say things like “Your life sucks because it’s a man’s world,” etc. The first gag that got me to laugh was when Jenny nearly crashes into a driver and the driver pulls over to insult her. Jenny yells, “Racist,” and the driver sticks his head out the window to reveal he’s also Asian. They can be chuckle-worthy but are often framed as Jenny attempting to latch onto causes she doesn’t care about.
This rhythm repeats for a bit until we get into the second act, which shifts more into the quiz show element of this movie. There’s an elaborate extended gag about Jenny booking a hotel themed around Benjamin Franklin, who is played by Tony Hale. It’s an incredibly one-note joke and while Hale is always game for looking like an imbecile, he contributes very little. The only laugh I got out of the entire segment was Awkwafina cursing him out.
It was at this point that I began to wonder what Quiz Lady was truly trying to accomplish. With the cast having such recognizable and funny names, I wasn’t sure if the film wanted to be an outrageously funny, gag-a-minute jokefest, or some deep and moving story about a pair of siblings who had their childhood torn apart by their selfish mother. Considering we never see the mother at all, I was leaning more toward this being a comedy that didn’t quite land.
When Quiz Lady finally gets Anne in front of a small audience at her audition, that’s when the film gets going. Jenny gives Anne a bag of drugs and Anne starts tripping hard. It’s not exactly original, but Awkwafina’s wonderfully expressive face sells the pure bliss of the situation well. I also really liked the editing of the scene, with a bubble covering Anne’s perception of reality while sitting next to Jenny and her actual reality. Since Anne is basically in la-la-land, Anne has to jump in and give her some downers, which then makes her fantasy crash down and causes her to explode into a rambling mess that is firing off answers rapid-fire.
There is a moment where Anne and Jenny finally turn away from each before, but miraculously, Anne gets called to star in “Can’t Stop the Quiz,” and the final act of the film puts her on stage. Again, not every joke lands here, but getting all of the talent involved at once helps in bringing out their best qualities. Awkwafina is a solid foil to Schwartzman and Will Ferrell surprisingly plays a very subdued part. He never dominates any scene and his whole personality of being mild-mannered and softly charming is infectious. It makes you wonder why the movie spent so much time dealing with nonsensical setup instead of focusing more on the quiz show.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t other moments that play to these actors’ strengths. When Anne opens up to Jenny during a hospital visit, you can see shades of Awkwafina’s emotional depth from The Farewell. Even though her story is a bit ridiculous, she accurately captures the anguish one would have when trying to reveal dark secrets to family members. Sandra Oh also plays against type and gets to flex her comedy chops, which is a refreshing turn for her. In a way, it reminds me of her character from Sideways, a film I absolutely love.
The more emotional scenes are really where Quiz Lady works. Despite not being enthused about much of the narrative, a character-bonding moment at the end nearly made me tear up. Anne pantomiming a certain situation while Jenny needs to guess who is a hero feels very earned after the journey they’ve endured.
So there are certainly moments where Quiz Lady flourishes. It’s just a shame that the journey is marred by what feels like random humor. The closest comparison I can think of is Little Miss Sunshine, which tackles a dysfunctional family road-tripping around the US to support the youngest member. That film gave each character far more depth than Quiz Lady does, which helps the viewer in rooting for the ultimate outcome. There’s no lesson to be learned here, other than maybe not booking a hotel themed after a founding father.
I haven’t mentioned any of the filming techniques or soundtrack because there’s nothing of note. Quiz Lady follows a basic template set forth by films such as Dumb and Dumber, etc, and just incorporates modern pop songs alongside functional framing. That sounds bad, but it never rises above being effective. I wish I could remember much beyond a few key moments.
Overall, my enjoyment level after the credits rolled was roughly at the same level as when I first put the film on. Quiz Lady is decent enough entertainment, but one that doesn’t truly rise above being okay. Everyone involved, from the actors to the director and the writers, is capable of better than this. There are segments where the film can shine, but it otherwise is fine just existing. I suppose that is a reflection of its main character, though even she learns to change her routine a bit.
Also, shoutout to Paul Ruebens in his final film role. It was nice seeing him again.