Can you call it a comedy if there isn’t a single laugh?
By the time TIFF rolls to a close, festival-goers have inevitably been subject to a lot of on-scream dramas and traumas. Ending the festival with some lighter fare, like Quiz Lady, traditionally provides a bit of respite and a fun ending to 11 days of movies. But sadly, not a single laugh was to be had during the film’s excruciatingly long running time of 99 minutes. So what’s the problem? Is it this writer who lacks a funny bone or is Quiz Lady really devoid of laughs? I present a case for the latter.
In what sounds like a fun concept, Awkwafina and Sandra Oh play sisters. As a child, Anne (Awkwafina) lacked a stable foundation other than her nightly viewing of a TV quiz show (starring Will Ferrell as host, Terry). Her loud and flighty big sister Jenny (Oh) hogged what little spotlight there was in the family, allowing the timid Anne to grow into an even meeker adult whose nightly routine still revolves around her beloved TV quiz show.
When Jenny bursts back into Anne’s life, she inadvertently turns her little sister into a social media sensation known as “quiz lady” for her innate ability to fire off the answers to the nightly quiz like some sort of savant. When the video catches the eye of the quiz producers, she’s encouraged to audition for the game show, setting off her insecurities.
Directed by Jessica Yu from a script by Jen D’Angelo, Quiz Lady has an encouraging premise. However, the story is bogged down with a subplot involving Jenny and Anne’s mother who has absconded to Macau, leaving so much debt that Anne’s beloved dog, the decrepitly old Mr. Linguini, is kidnapped. This zany complication provides the impetus she needs to go on the quiz show and win the prize money to pay the dog’s ransom. However, she’ll have to face off against Ron (Jason Schwartzman), the smarmy quiz show champ if she wants to win. Holland Taylor is there too as Anne’s grumpy neighbour and Tony Hale shows up as the cosplaying owner of a Benjamin Franklin-themed hotel. The two broad comedians of the cast – Awkwafina and Ferrell – find themselves in Quiz Lady’s most subdued roles, neither of them responsible for any of the jokes the film tries so hard to land.
Awkwafina and Oh are dynamite performers who have proven themselves across film and TV, which makes it all the more disappointing that neither of them can make Quiz Lady work. Awkwafina’s performance is as drab as the slouchy Anne’s wardrobe, while Oh plays Jenny to the extreme to make up for Anne’s lack of personality. As Jenny, Oh provides more cringes than laughs as a 40-something woman looking for a purpose in her life. It should come as no surprise that there’s a heartwarming message of sisterhood and looking out for one another buried in Quiz Lady’s loose ends. Both of these actors deserve much better than this film can give them.
Squint too hard at the math involved in the timelines of Quiz Lady and you’ll undoubtedly come up short. The beloved pug dog Mr. Linguini is in his 20s, just as the fashion and setting of flashback scenes scream mid-1990s and not, as the timeline should dictate, the early 2000s. This is somewhat of a joke in the film but feels more like an afterthought when filmmakers realized it didn’t all add up.
Quiz Lady feels like it was slapped together from scraps of a better film. Casting Ferrell as the quiz show host is a nice wink to his old Saturday Night Live days playing Alex Trebek in Jeopardy! sketches, but even the worst of those five-minute sketches is funnier than all 99 minutes of Quiz Lady. The film’s lone laugh came courtesy of the late, great Paul Reubens who makes his final film appearance in a cameo here.
Seeing this with an audience, there were laughs and some downright guffaws, which I find inexplicable. Out of 43 films I watched at TIFF, Quiz Lady was the only film I considered walking out of. Perhaps I’m just all out of laughs to give.