Unfunny, cliched comedies are the easiest breed of bad movies to not be upset with. They don’t insult any high art form, they don’t take themselves too seriously anyway, and they might even have one or two moments worth chuckling about. At the very worst, consuming them is just a waste of time. It’s why Quiz Lady, which uncomfortably struggles to find its laughs, is still fairly harmless.
Directed by Jessica Yu (an Oscar-winning documentarian), the Hulu original obviously consists of a three-act structure, but if each act felt like it were pulled from a different film from the other two, in terms of pacing, tone, and stakes. But there are still story threads that tie the whole thing together, of course. It centers on Anne Yum (Awkwafina), a quiet loner obsessed with a Jeopardy-like TV show called Can’t Stop the Quiz, hosted by Terry McTeer, played by Will Ferrell doing his best mash-up of Alex Trebek and Mister Rogers.
Anne hasn’t missed an episode in 30 years and has the trivia chops to be a contestant herself — if she didn’t have so much social anxiety. In a world where everyone vies for the affection of society — be it through social media, mass media, or just workplace conversations — she just wants to blend in. And this would be a unique hook if it weren’t so relatable. That’s not to say that Quiz Lady is an earnest character study, but it does have points to make. Luckily, most of them get tossed out or forgotten about soon enough.
Anne’s counterpoint is Jenny (Sandra Oh), her (much) older sister, a free-spirited, possibly promiscuous vagrant who comes back into her life when she believes their mother is dead (turns out she’s just missing). Jenny secretly films a video of Anne answering every question right while watching the quiz show on TV, which turns Anne into a viral sensation. Jenny then dragoons her sister into auditioning for Can’t Stop the Quiz — a decision that’s made much easier after a visit from a loan shark who holds her dog for ransom until she pays off the $80,000 owed by her gambling-addict mother.
While the main cast suffers from a vapid script by Jen D’Angelo, the side characters do get time to shine, such as Jason Schwartzman’s smarmy contestant on the game show with a record-breaking streak, or Holland Taylor as Anne’s elderly neighbor Francine who thinks Paul Reubens is her favorite actor because he looks like Alan Cumming. Tony Hale has a standout role as a colonial-style innkeeper who pretends to be Ben Franklin despite having braces. The best jokes come from his confusion over the technology the inn must use in order to stay in business in our modern-day society. When the front desk phone rings, he says, “Is that a bird?”
When the two leads are the only ones on screen, there’s a genuine confusion about who thought this was a good idea — which is something I don’t often think when watching even the worst motion pictures (the two stars also share producer credits, so there’s that). While Awkwafina has showcased talent in films like The Farewell and Renfield, she needs some sort of comedic talent to play off of, which can’t be found in Sandra Oh, who always looks like she’s playing pretend rather than acting. I remember thinking this about her even when she was in Alexander Payne’s Sideways.
Despite its bright spots and a surprisingly beguiling final act, Quiz Show is a lame duck for most of its runtime; the film’s in desperate need of some punching up and Jessica Yu has a difficult time finding a natural flow for the material. And that’s all without mentioning the distracting 17-year age gap between the two-on-screen sisters. This wouldn’t have been an issue had there been any real chemistry between them, but like so much of the movie they just seem incompatible with being funny.