Quiz Lady is the kind of comedy that ought to work on paper but mostly flubs its execution. Directed by Jessica Yu—the filmmaker behind the documentary Misconception and several great episodes of This Is Us—the film casts actresses Awkwafina and Sandra Oh against type, as a pair of estranged sisters who are wildly different, and fail to get along amidst a harebrained TV game show scheme. Unfortunately, that description is about as entertaining as the movie gets, despite the committed work of its lead performers.
Written by Jen D'Angelo, Quiz Lady begins with promise. It introduces us to introverted quiz show enthusiast Anne Yum and her brash, outgoing older sister Jenny—played as youngsters by Jodi Hou and Shirley Chen, spitting images of Awkwafina and Oh respectively—as they get on each other’s nerves, in their cramped Pennsylvania home, the day their parents decide to separate. This lightning-quick flashback is detailed enough, by way of performance, costume and production design, that it tells us all we need to know about the sisters’ personal relationship and economic background.
When we meet a 30-something Anne in the present, each creative decision re-enforces her caricatured loneliness and mundane routine, from Awkwafina’s hunched-over posture, to the way her beige sweater blends in with her isolated office cubicle. However, this precision at effectively communicating ideas quickly falls by the wayside. When Anne and Jenny’s mother escapes from her old folks’ home, the sisters are forced to reunite before being pulled into a pseudo-criminal scheme involving a local gangster (John “Dumbfoundead” Park) to whom their mother owes gambling money, and who kidnaps Anne’s dog and demands $80,000 in cash for its safe return.
Quiz Lady’s plot unfolds through jokes that aren’t so much setups and payoffs, but rather, observations and one-liners delivered as though the movie’s cast had been forced to improvise against their will. Few of them ever land, or feel convincingly performed. This approach works, at times, for the unpredictable Jenny, whose revealing clothes, blue-streaked hair and generally messy demeanor allow Oh to let loose with some truly nonsensical dialogue—she’s a wannabe life coach who can’t get her own life together; an amusingly ironic premise—but Awkwafina, unfortunately, doesn’t give her much to play off.
In films like The Farewell, the rapper-turned-actress has shown tremendous dramatic skill, but as a straight-faced foil to Oh’s chaotic Jenny, Awkwafina’s conception of Anne isn’t all that different from her other fast-talking, wise-cracking characters in terms of delivery and intonation. There’s no meaningful contrast between the sisters, except for their appearance, so the two actresses play it as if they’re trying to out-do each other with punchlines that are never punchy enough for such a rapid-fire delivery.
Worse yet, each time the movie lands on an interesting premise or fun idea, it skips past it without letting it play out to its full conclusion, and seldom circles back to it later on. Anne’s love for the Jeopardy-like series Can’t Stop the Quiz, hosted by Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell doing his best Alex Trebek) exposes her as someone with a vast and near-unparalleled general knowledge each time she answers along with the TV contestants, though we’re only led to assume why she might be as book-smart as she is (if she’s book-smart at all; no scenario ever tests her skills except for the show itself). Is her loneliness a symptom of her know-it-all nature? Or is her bookworm passion a byproduct of her loneliness? It’s hard to tell, since the movie only paints a nominal picture of her, through the aforementioned design details, without giving us a real sense of who she is, or letting her identity organically dictate the humor surrounding her behavior.
When Jenny forces her self-help on Anne, pushing her to participate in her favorite show, the sisters end up at a sports bar where they have to convince the patrons to switch channels to Can’t Stop the Quiz, a fun challenge that we never actually see play out, since the movie skips forward to the following scene. All the while, Anne has picked up the nickname “quiz lady” because of a video Jenny posted online, of Anne answering every question on the show, which subsequently went viral. But the only impact Anne’s virality has is people at her workplace recognizing her; despite being a potentially life-changing incident, her online fame is a non-factor from there on out.
This hopping and skipping between plot points impacts the movie’s emotional ideas too. What Quiz Lady is even about at its core seems to change on a whim across its 106 minutes, from the difficulties (and ultimate euphoria) of sisterhood, to what it’s like for two Asian women to navigate white America—a semi-joking idea broached once or twice in the form of Jenny claiming racism in scenarios where none apparently exists. It’s a fleeting joke with no real depth or inquiry into the lived reality of such cultural dynamics, which can be mined for much heartier laughs (as they were in the recent Asian American comedy Shortcomings). Instead, Jenny simply gets out of situations by proclaiming that life is hard for Asian women in the United States, or by claiming something she said was “an Ancient Chinese proverb,” to which white liberal characters eager to be seen as “good” smilingly nod along. It’s worth a chuckle the first time this happens, but by the third or fourth time the joke re-appears without much variation, the gag has long since worn thin.
Quiz Lady even suddenly becomes a girl-and-her-dog story near the end, despite not having been one for the preceding hour and a half. It’s a brief interlude, but it’s granted as much screen-time as the quiz show itself, the very premise of the film and Anne’s supposed lifelong obsession, to which she doesn’t end up giving much thought beyond what the plot mechanics demand of her (in order to move her from one place to the next).
Even their mother, whose mistakes set this story in motion, is a complete non-entity, with neither physical nor emotional presence, despite the sisters frequently mentioning her as a defining factor in their respective arrested developments. How? Why? It’s hard to say, beyond the broad strokes of Asian American stories frequently featuring immigrant moms and dads who have an adversarial place in their children’s lives. This time, there’s no complexity involved, and the only laugh the movie tries to mine from this relationship is Anne and Jenny imitating their mother’s Chinese accent.
Both the comedy and drama of Quiz Lady are stifled by the fact that neither Anne nor Jenny seem particularly driven by anything. They have few if any objectives that clash with one another, or with the outside world, giving the screenplay a farcical feeling. However, its filmmaking tells a different story, with careful compositions that seek to capture a physical dynamic between the sisters, and a muted color palette that theoretically hints at some sort of longing beneath the surface—only in either case, there’s nothing for these directing tricks to actually unearth. All they do is make you wonder if a given absurd line of dialogue is meant to be funny or serious, while nothing in the tone of the filmmaking or performances pushes it in either direction. So, it simply exists in a lukewarm middle ground, as dead air fills the space, resulting in a comedy where concepts like culture and sisterhood are fleeting ideas the film skips past, rather than mining them for laughter and recognition.
Published on November 3, 2023