This piece was published during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
There’s no denying Jessica Yu’s Quiz Lady follows many conventional beats, especially regarding Anne Yum’s (Awkwafina) relationship with her sister, Jenny (Sandra Oh). It’s a dysfunctional family acting dysfunctional for a good chunk of the runtime until the two realize how deeply they love one another as they are stuck in a situation where they are forced to be together. The situation itself is a rather precarious one: after their mother disappears from her retirement home, a gangster (Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park) tells Anne she has two weeks to come up with $80,000 or her dog, Mr. Linguini, will perish. He is collecting a debt held by her mom, who fled to Macao with her boyfriend to avoid paying it.
With Anne not making enough money at her current job and Jenny completely broke, the only way to collect as much cash as possible seems for Anne to participate in the top-rated quiz show that’s totally not Jeopardy! called Can’t Stop the Quiz! Anne has been watching the show since childhood and knows all the answers host Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell) tells his participants. There’s only one problem: she is highly introverted and doesn’t want to face public humiliation. But through her sister’s extravagant personality, Anne learns to trust herself, which leads to her meeting the show’s current champion, Ron Heacock (Jason Schwartzman).
So, yeah, the story is a relatively paint-by-numbers one, and it’s perhaps the film’s most glaring flaw. Some of the side characters also aren’t as developed as they should be: the gangster characters themselves seem to be set up as a prominent part of Anne’s arc and the true antagonists of the picture. However, they vanish entirely from the film in its third act, whose antagonist figure is replaced by the seemingly nice (but not really) Heacock. Schwartzman plays the character with as many detestable qualities as he can pluck from other “I always come out on top” villains (also, the fact that he puts makeup on his hands adds to his “love to hate” attributes). Still, you can’t help but feel his arc seems too reliant on classic tropes instead of elevating them to funnier heights.
Even the side characters beyond the villain have a development problem: Anne’s neighbor, Francine (Holland Taylor), seems to be set up for a more prominent role in its last act (to which she does), but Yu and screenwriter Jen D’Angelo do nothing of interest with her, and Taylor’s comedic talents. However, this sense of disappointment permeated by Francine pays off in the film’s best — and most touching — cameo. This is not a spoiler, as the director revealed his appearance at the movie’s TIFF premiere, but Paul Reubens appears as himself (confused by Francine to be Alan Cumming from The Good Wife) driving a golf cart.
Reubens’ final film appearance is brief, but there’s a sense of closure in his facial expressions, to which he knows, deep down, that this may be the last time he’ll appear on the screen. Yu gives as much respect to the stature of Reubens’ screen persona as the actor respects the audience by playing Pee-Wee Herman or any other character on the screen. His respect for the fans even transcended the grave, where he apologized to everyone for not revealing his health problems before his death, stating, “I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans, and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”
This heart Yu infuses through Reubens’ cameo is also profoundly felt through Awkwafina and Sandra Oh’s chemistry. It’s not perfect — there certainly are moments where the comedy falls pitifully flat — but there’s just enough emotional pull in their respective portrayals of the character to make you care about their relationship. There isn’t a single moment where their bond doesn’t feel genuine, and it’s especially apparent near the climax, where the two play charades (or “Show It!”) to win Can’t Stop the Quiz! No one else understands what type of charades Anne does, except for Jenny, because their bond knows no bounds.
And it’s because of that singular element that Quiz Lady works. Sure, it’s not a highly refined comedy from a storytelling perspective. However, you can’t fake a genuine friendship between Awkwafina and Sandra Oh, and the two bring just enough dynamism and texture to their performances that you slowly start to invest yourself in the story and their sisterly relationship. Is it the best movie of the year? No. But does it get the job done for what it wants to achieve? Absolutely. And if you’re a fan of quiz shows, what are you waiting for?
Quiz Lady is now available to stream on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ internationally.