Toronto 2023 Review: QUIZ LADY, Sister Bonding on the Road
The opposite-people-coming-together-in-a-crisis comedy has a good tradition in Hollywood cinema (and perhaps there is a more succinct term for it that I can't think of). Certainly with siblings especially, it provides relatable complex relationships for a broad audience to connect with. But there's no reason it has to be dull, and no reason it can't also stretch some boundaries and have some fun pocking fun at stereotypes.
A film that does both of those is Quiz Lady. Oscar-winning filmmaker and veteran TV director Jessica Yu has a great deal of fun with the story of two sisters who need to win big to save the family dog. With Canada's sweetheart Sandra Oh (Killing Eve, Grey's Anatomy) and Awkwafina (The Farewell, Nora from Queens) as the estranged pair, it makes for a ride where you know most of the stops and destinations, but the view is just different enough to provide for good laughs.
Annie's (Awkwafina) life revolves around three things: her mundane accounting job, her pug Linguine, and her favourite television show, a nightly quiz show of which she hasn't missed an episode on over twenty years. Her mother, a regular gambler, has absconded (yet again) from her retirement home; what's more, she owes a loan shark several thousand dollars. Annie is put on the hook for it, and the guy has taken Linguine as collateral. Jenny (Oh), the frequently unemployed, flighty sister, concocts a scheme to get the dog back, and maybe help her younger sister get a life.
Annie and Jenny's status as polar-opposite sisters might seem at first just for comic effect, but there is method in it: growing up in a house with an absent father and a mother more interesting in gambling than her daughters, it seems fitting that one (Jenny) would follow more in the mother's path and never be able to hold down any kind of stable life, while the other (Annie) would retreat into herself, and the one thing that brings her happiness: knowing trivia about just about everything, from super bowl champions to oscar winners to minerology. This kind of order helps keep her calm and focused, whereas Jenny prefers a scattered existence; but each is using their lifestyles to distract from their sadness.
Jen d'Angelo's script perhaps doesn't go to the depths that it could, but fear not - this is a film that trades on laughs far more than tears. Again, it's the kind of beats we expect - one tidy sister, one messy one; one that trades on her looks and charm, the other who hasn't figured out how to communicate well. There are car gags, hotel misfires, a very funny drug-taking moment, a criminal underworld that is far more gentile than we would have guessed. But we know this story: shenanigans will happen as our heroines reach for their dream.
If you're going to follow a familiar plot structure, you need a cast with the acting chops to make it worth our while. Luckily, Oh exudes the most incredible charm, energy, and commitment to a somewhat against-type role, she steals most of the film. Awkwafina also plays against type, and she makes a good foil in the more straight man role. Both Oh and Awkwafina are skilled at the physical comedy and play off each other with skill and heart. Add in supporting comic heavyweights Will Ferrell as the kindly quiz show host, Holland Taylor as the crotchety neighbour with an Alan Cumming obsession, and Jason Schwartzman as the smarmy reigning quiz show champion, and Quiz Show rates above the average.
- Jessica Yu
- Jen D'Angelo
- Will Ferrell
- Jason Schwartzman