‘Quiz Lady’ Review: Jessica Yu Directs Sandra Oh And Awkwafina In A Film About Sisterly Bonds And Quiz Show Dreams – Toronto Film Festival

In the realm of road movies, family ties, and the complexities of sisterhood, the Hulu/20th Century Studio offers up Quiz Lady, a film that charts a familiar course. Directed by Jessica Yu and penned by Jen D’Angelo, the film boasts an ensemble cast led by the undeniable talent of Sandra Oh and Awkwafina, supported by the comedic prowess of Will Ferrell, Holland Taylor and Jason Schwartzman.

Young Anne loves Can’t Stop the Quiz game show and its host Terry McTeer (Ferrell). She enjoys watching it on evening television while her older sister slacks off on the phone all day, and her parents argue over her mother’s gambling addiction. In adulthood, Anne (Awkwafina) is still obsessed with quiz shows, works at a dull 9-to-5 and gets yelled at by her neighbor Francine (Taylor) on a daily basis. One day she finds her mother escaped from the senior living facility with her boyfriend Jeff. This prompts older sis Jenny (Oh) to reunite with the only family she has.

Jenny is living out of her car as none of her business ventures have worked out, so she asks to move in with Anne who reluctantly agrees. While watching Can’t Stop the Quiz, Jenny notices her sister knows a lot of quiz show facts, and ask why she’s never been a panelist. At work, Anne finds out she’s gone viral after big sis Jenny recorded her answering every single question from the show the night before. After work, Anne is confronted by a loan shark looking for her mother who owes him $80k, and has now labeled her responsible for paying him back. For collateral, he kidnaps her elderly dog Linguine. The sisterly duo have to come up with a plan to get the dog back and pay off these loans, or else their dog is lost forever. 

Themes of destiny and fate are interwoven throughout the film, reminding viewers of the trajectory of life and the challenge of accepting it. But the overarching narrative, while significant in its representation of Asian experiences and the potency of sisterhood, treads the middle ground. It doesn’t elicit laughter or substantial emotional pull, leaning into predictability despite its occasional fun moments. This doesn’t mean Quiz Lady isn’t important because its always good to see varied narratives about the Asian experience.

The story arc centers on two sisters’ journey to reconcile their estranged relationship, but the initial plot point dealing with their mother’s debts recedes into the background as the movie progresses. By the third act, the mother’s pivotal role has been disallowed. Narrative pivots like this can work if executed correctly, but here it feels like a forgotten thread.

Also a rethinking of roles might have served the story a bit more. Positioning Sandra Oh as the responsible older sister with Awkwafina as the wild sibling feels more organic, especially given Awkwafina’s flair for the flamboyant. One can’t help but feel that the character penned for her fails to truly capture what she’s celebrated for.

However, not everything about Quiz Lady is middling. Will Ferrell shines brilliantly, adopting a Mr. Rogers-esque persona that feels sincere rather than a gimmick. In a departure from his usual comedic antics, as McTeer, Ferrell adds warmth and empathy. Another surprising standout is the aged pug, Linguine. His droopy, near-death demeanor adds a dose of comedic relief, making the pug one of the film’s unsung heroes.

Quiz Lady is a mixed bag, attempting to balance lots of themes, from family bonds to the nuances of Asian American culture. While it champions diverse narratives and features commendable performances, it falls prey to predictability and an uneven storytelling. Yet, the film’s shining moments, notably Ferrell’s endearing performance and the unexpected comedic relief from Linguine the pug, make it worth a watch. It serves as a reminder that even in tales that tread familiar ground, there are always elements that resonate and connect to the viewer. 

Title: Quiz Lady
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Distributor: Hulu/20th Centry Studio
Release date: November 3, 2023
Director: Jessica Yu
Screenwriters: Jen D’ Angelo
Cast: Sandra Oh, Awkwafina, Will Ferrell, Holland Taylor and Jason Schwartzman
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 39 mins

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