Producers: Will Ferrell, Jessica Elbaum, Maggie Haskins, Itay Reiss, Jen D’Angelo, Awkwafina and Sandra Oh Director: Jessica Yu Screenplay: Jen D’Angelo Cast: Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Jason Schwartzman, Holland Taylor, Tony Hale, Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park, Tawny Newsome, Paul Reubens and Will Ferrell Distributor: Hulu
Squabbling siblings bond while going through a wacky family crisis in Jessica Yu’s uneven but breezy comedy that’s lifted from mediocrity by the chemistry between leads Awkwafina and Sandra Oh and a winningly laid-back supporting turn from Will Ferrell as an Alex Trebek-style host of a “Jeopardy”-like TV game show. Yu’s energetic pacing papers over the screenplay’s structural shortcomings.
The two stars each play the role that might have been written for the other. Awkwafina, usually so ebullient and over-the-top on screen, is Anne, the quiet, mousy sister, stuck in a deadening accounting job and living alone with her pet pug Mr. Linguini, constantly berated by her next-door neighbor Francine (Holland Taylor). The only real joy of her life, apart from the dog of course, is her obsession with the long-running game show “Can’t Stop The Quiz” and its beloved host Terry McTeer (Ferrell); she’s been watching it religiously since childhood and has gotten to the point where she can answer the questions faster than the on-screen contestants.
By contrast her sister Jenny, a recklessly free-spirited, totally irresponsible woman who left home when their parents split up, is played by Oh, usually seen in more somber, serious mode. Both stars are cast against type, and embrace the challenge enthusiastically. Playing diametrically opposed personalities, they quickly build an unlikely rapport as an odd couple thrown together after years of estrangement.
What reunites them is a garbled message from a nursing room saying that they’ve lost their mother—which both interpret to mean that she’s died. In fact she’s just run away with a boyfriend to Macao, and it quickly becomes clear that she had good reason for disappearing. She owes eighty grant in gambling debts to a bookie named Ken (John Park), who demands that they pony up the cash for her.
Jenny claims that she’s expecting a huge payout from a suit she’s filed against a restaurant chain, but right now she’s living out of her car and has no money. Anne isn’t flush either. But Ken isn’t ready to wait. He kidnaps Mr. Linguini—it seems dognapping is one of his usual tactics, as it turns out—and demands the $80,000 as ransom.
Jenny has a sort of plan. She films Anne answering all the questions on the quiz show in her usual rapid-fire fashion and posts it online, where it goes viral. She then pressures shy Anne to audition for the program, which takes them on a road trip to Philadelphia where they take a room at a bed and breakfast run by a fellow who pretends to be Ben Franklin (Tony Hale)—whose impersonation Jenny, in one of the script’s most extraneous but funniest continuing bits, proceeds to pick apart, much to the poor guy’s chagrin.
The audition goes spectacularly off the rails when Jenny gives Anne drugs to get over her nervousness; at first she’s nearly comatose and then manic, but she’s invited to play for real anyway. By this time, though, she and Jenny have had a row (one part of it, involving a childhood incident at their cousins’ house, is meant to relate seriously to their long-term hostility, but really doesn’t come off), and so Anne enlists Francine, of all people, to accompany her as a potential partner for the show’s final round, lightning charades. Of course, by the close Jenny has returned to take Francine’s place.
The program sequences are lifted by Ferrell’s turn as an old-style gentleman who’s actually considerate of the guests (there’s a good bit about his wall of bowties), and by Jason Schwartzman ‘s appearance as the smarmily conceited champion who’s poised to set a new show victory record, and (he hopes) take over McTeer’s job. Schwartzman is so loathsome that your desire to see him get his comeuppance helps mitigate the clumsiness of the charade finale. There’s also a funny capper centered on Francine’s obsession with her favorite actor, Alan Cumming, though there’s some confusion in her admiration (which allows for an unexpected cameo), as well as some amusing captions detailing “what happened next” for the various characters.
As might be clear from all this, structurally “Quiz Lady” is rather a mess, but it’s a generally amusing one, largely because of the pairing of Awkwafina and Oh, Ferrell’s charm, and a good supporting cast, with standout turns from Hale, Schwartzman and veteran Taylor. The technical aspects of the 20th Century Studios movie—Jeff Mann’s production design, Brenda Abbandandolo’s costumes, Adrian Peng Correia’s cinematography, the editing by Nat Sanders and Susan Vaill, and even Nick Urata’s score—aren’t much better than sitcom quality, but they serve.
This is one of those movies that, had it been released to theatres, probably wouldn’t have made much of a splash. But as streaming fare, it’s above average.