‘Quiz Lady’ Review — Awkwafina and Sandra Oh Are a Great Duo
Sep 18, 2023
This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.Whether it’s film or television, audiences have been consistently drawn to the charm (and frequent hilarity) of unlikely duos coming together. Add into the mix the complexities family brings to that pairing and you have one of the funniest movies of the year with Oscar-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu’s Quiz Lady, starring Awkwafina and Sandra Oh, as mismatched siblings in need of money to quickly pay off their mother’s gambling debts and retrieve their dog. Playing to the beat of ‘90s buddy comedies through witty dialogue and sharp slapstick humor, it manages to balance the laughs with strong, relationship drama for a spirited film about sisterhood rarely celebrated on the big screen.
Weaving together some big comedic swings with surprisingly poignant moments through its lead stars playing against type, Quiz Lady gets into the complicatedness of how siblings get past something traumatic without blaming each other for it. In this rhythm supported by quick pacing and a genuine chemistry, we see a heartfelt sincerity and vibrancy between Oh and Awkwafina’s characters emerge. From the producers of Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, it charts a familiar course between road trips and family bonds while boasting an incredible ensemble cast of Will Ferrell, Holland Taylor, Jason Schwartzman, Jon Park, and Tony Hale. Penned by screenwriter Jen D’Angelo (Workaholics, Solar Opposites), it is also the last time audiences will get a chance to see Pee-Wee Herman star, Paul Reubens, who gives a performance that is incredibly endearing and memorable.
‘Quiz Lady’ Explores Childhood Trauma
Image via TIFF, 20th Century Fox
Quiz Lady, as laugh-out-loud as it is charming and tender, follows two very different sisters, Anne (Awkwafina) and Jenny (Oh). Where routine keeps the brilliant yet antisocial Anne content in her little bubble filled with beige clothes that match her accounting cubicle and allow her to be invisible, Jenny is the opposite with a loud, fiery personality and colorful hairpieces that align with some very wayward, entrepreneurial ambitions. Through their interactions, we learn the sisters are stuck in the past. Stricken with trauma from a constantly absent mother, Anne and Jenny only have each other — even if they don’t connect as often anymore. During that time apart, Anne became obsessed with her favorite game show Can’t Stop the Quiz, hosted by an Alex Trebek and Mister Rogers-styled figure Terry McTeer (Ferrell), which was also a steady part of her life as a child. Never missing an episode since the age of 4 (also the night her father left and never returned), Anne’s life is perpetually mundane and rarely budges from its daily pattern, which periodically includes getting yelled at by her neighbor Francine (Taylor).
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However, that all changes when Anne and Jenny’s mother go missing from the nursing home and is seemingly on the run from gambling debts with her boyfriend Jeff in Macau. With the two getting mixed up in their mom’s issues and spending more time together, Anne’s sense of security is soon compromised when her lazy, overweight pug, Mr. Linguine is dognapped by her mom’s bookie, Ken (Park), as collateral. Forced to pay up in exchange for the pup, Jenny helps to concoct a plan for the pair to head across the country and turn Anne into a game show champion.
Making the most of two very talented actors, Yu manages to create a story that is spirited and energetic. While Quiz Lady explores childhood trauma, she addresses it with extreme honesty and an empathetic tone. Yu offers a glimpse into that universal grief while giving a voice to those who lack attachments. Though the director has been known for her Oscar-winning documentary (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien), multiple dramas, and television shows, she establishes the tone of Quiz Lady most affectionately through smart direction and an infectious pairing that doesn’t compel its leads to exaggerate their differences.
Awkwafina and Sandra Oh Give Their Best in ‘Quiz Lady’
Image via TIFF, 20th Century Fox
As Quiz Lady organically evolves into a madcap, slapstick comedy with laugh-out-loud humor that is then juxtaposed against an endearing story about family, it’s the prickly chemistry between its two leads that really propels this film forward and gives it another layer. In fusing Oh’s resume of high achievers with Awkwafina’s affinity for slackers, the film allows the two to break out of their own routine for a relationship that is rarely celebrated on the big screen, let alone focused on women of color.
Though the themes are heavy in Quiz Lady, the story remains lighthearted, giving Awkwafina and Oh enough room to play with and fill in the remainder through their performances. There’s no doubt that Anne and Jenny have been through a lot in their life, but it’s these characters that really bring out the best in both actors. While Awkwafina has shown audiences a whacky, often one-dimensional side in some of her roles like the sitcom Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, she is able to break out of that shell and show us what more she can do in a similar vein to her performance in 2019’s The Farewell. With the writing displaying a glint of heartbreak through Anne, we see a deeper side to the quiet life she lives through Awkwafina’s absorbing performance. She never overdoes Anne’s reactions following Jenny’s missteps and holds us close with the utmost attention.
Compared to Awkwafina’s role as a buttoned-up introvert, Oh gives more of a physical performance for Quiz Lady. Between the very smartly written sight gags and interactions, she pivots most compellingly from comedy to drama with sharp timing. In flowing between the trauma her character felt growing up and leaving Anne behind at a young age, Oh channels that hurt and love beneath Jenny’s guarded surface with a nuanced complexity. It’s a performance that cuts loose but also balances Awkwafina’s role without missing a mark. The roles fit like a glove for both Awkwafina and Oh with Yu mentioned during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival that the three of them, with screenwriter D’Angelo, workshopped the script before filming. This pays off as the writing feels more personalized.
‘Quiz Lady’ Is Effortlessly Funny With Immense Heart
Image via TIFF, 20th Century Fox
Overflowing with genuine affection and an emotional core, Quiz Lady never loses sight of its heart. Oh and Awkwafina definitely make it worth the watch, but it’s also its supporting cast that deserves praise. Ferrell offers audiences one of the most tender roles he’s done in quite some time that calls back to his comedy and charm in Elf. He is affable and sweet, becoming a real father figure that plays most touchingly to Anne’s trauma. Rounding out the funniness is Schwartzman as the smarmy game show contestant Ron, whose quiet hopes of stealing the show from Ferrell’s Terry are evident in his fake niceties and hilariously contoured, makeup-laced fingers. Taylor, though her time is limited, leaves us with some of the film’s funniest moments as one of the neighborhood cranks. Leaving a lasting impression thanks to her humor and sardonic character, we get something similar with Hale as a braces-wearing Ben Franklin impersonator who is equally terrified of Jenny, and Park (also known as Dumbfoundead) as the softie “tong” member who has a weak spot for pups not taken care of.
Though heightened by some witty dialogue, sometimes comedy doesn’t always need words. Quiz Lady proves that most hilariously through subtle sight gags that cement it as one of the year’s funniest movies so far. The sharply written script easily allows its talent to evoke a constant stream of laughs. In understanding and watching Anne and Jenny’s story unravel through some very heavy subject matter balanced by comedy and an organic reconnection that celebrates family across their numerous interactions, Yu’s Quiz Lady sets a high bar for R-rated comedies. The film is funny but also manages to be a smart comedy that feeds off its dramatic moments for a story that shines thanks to the depth of sisterly love. In breaking down the nuances of happiness found through trauma thanks to some soulful performances, Quiz Lady is a cinematic treat that wears its silliness and heart most profoundly.
The Big Picture
Quiz Lady is a hilarious and heartwarming film about the bond between two mismatched sisters, played brilliantly by Awkwafina and Sandra Oh. The chemistry between Awkwafina and Oh is electric, with both actors delivering standout performances that showcase their range and comedic timing. With a well-crafted script and a talented supporting cast, including Will Ferrell and Jason Schwartzman, Quiz Lady strikes a perfect balance between humor and poignant moments, resulting in a cinematic treat.
Quiz Lady had its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
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