Quiz Lady celebrates the nostalgia of the quiz show. Many folks share fond memories of sitting with their families to watch lucky contestants solve word puzzles or create questions. It was a routine for some, a ritual for others, and a comfort for most. They were never problematic and were always light-hearted but no less thrilling during their best moments. The new film by director Jennifer Yu captures these exact feelings and spins them into a comfortable, heartwarming comedy.
As a child, Anne Yum (Awkwafina) found solace in the daily ritual of watching her favorite quiz show. Her family was chaotic, but the calm, soothing demeanor of host Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell) helped her get through. As an adult, introverted Anne continues to watch her favorite show but when her mother disappears her routine collapses. Learning that her mother has a huge gambling debt, Anne’s free-spirited sister Jenny (Sandra Oh) arranges an audition for Anne to appear as a contestant on her favorite show to earn the money needed to pay off the debt. The journey tests the bonds of sisterhood as Anne and Jenny make their way to the show.
The script by Jen D’Angelo comes to life through the performances of the two leads. Awkwafina’s straight man to Oh’s wild-child older sister plays each against type to great success. Both balance comedy and drama exceptionally well, elevating what could be a run-of-the-mill comedy into something more. The film’s most touching moment, however, comes from Ferrell. After years of impersonating the late Alex Trebek in a series of SNL skits, Ferrell channels the famous Jeopardy host’s signature relatability as host of the fictional “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” He turns a gentle and nurturing performance that also plays against his more signature over-the-top personas. Supporting cast members Holland Taylor, Tony Hale, and Jason Schwartzman deliver solid comedic performances as well.
Yu, a veteran television director, balances the humor and heart well. She doesn’t allow scenes to get too heavy or too silly. However, the pacing begins to drag slightly in act two, but the chemistry between the stars holds the film afloat. The film is formulaic, but Yu and her cast offer an argument that formulaic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While certain tropes will be familiar, Yu twists the punchlines to deliver unexpected results. Yu even gives what could have been a hackneyed subplot involving a kidnapped dog a surprising conclusion. She plays upon the audience’s expectations to deliver something comfortable and familiar but fresh and exciting. One cameo appearance by the late Paul Reubens in his last film role subverts expectations while paying homage to a long-standing Hollywood joke.
While the film is comfortable, Yu does hold her punches when it comes to some of the more problematic elements. The antagonist shaking down the sister’s mom for her gambling debt is revealed to be using the money to save dogs from a kill shelter. This and a myriad of other details about the sisters’ upbringing paint their runaway mother as the true villain of the film. While the sister’s relationship stands central, no resolution is presented for their mother’s misdeeds. This oversight seems like a dangling thread given resolutions are presented for all other characters. Despite all Anne’s answers to questions on the show, the filmmakers have no answer for addressing absentee parents.
I have fond memories as a child of watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” regardless of where I was visiting. No matter which house I was in, one of the programs was always on. As I aged, I enjoyed them on my own merit, priding myself anytime I got a question or puzzle correct. But I also enjoyed them for the nostalgia, thinking of relatives confidently answering and saying, “That’s right” when they got it wrong. In Quiz Lady, Yu captures how much these shows mean to a generation. Awkwafina and Oh deliver laugh-out-loud yet emotional performances as sisters dealing with their shared experiences with bad parents in different ways. The film does not break any new ground but still feels fresh and original. Bolstered by an irresistible cast, Quiz Lady is one of the smartest comedies of the year.