Game shows have become a weird new sub-genre at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with Anna Kendrick telling the somewhat true story of a serial killer who appeared on “The Dating Game” in “Woman of the Hour” and the documentary “The Contestant” detailing a truly bizarre Japanese reality show that required its player to live naked in a room for more than a year winning prizes in order to survive.
And because it takes three to make a trend, Saturday night at TIFF brought Jessica Yu’s “Quiz Lady,” a spirited if slight comedy starring Awkwafina and Sandra Oh as mismatched sisters whose fate is bound up in a nightly game show called “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” Both actresses try hard to keep this energetic (or, perhaps, frantic) concoction afloat, although the future of this Disney/20th Century property seems healthier on a streaming outlet than in theaters. (The plan is for a Nov. 3 debut on Hulu.)
Awkwafina, with a scowl affixed to her face and a permanent slump in her shoulders, plays Anne Yum, a brilliant but thoroughly antisocial young woman with one daily ritual that brings her happiness: watching the long-running quiz show every night with her dog, Mr. Linguine, spitting out the answers before the show’s contestants have a chance to answer for themselves. (And these are “Jeopardy”-plus level questions, which is something of a disconnect given that the host, Jerry McTeer, wears a different bow tie every night and is played by Will Ferrell; you’d think a show that looks that silly would have easier questions.)
When Anne’s mother goes missing from the nursing home where she lives, it forces a reunion between Anne and her largely-absent sister Jenny, played by Sandra Oh for the first half of the film as a collection of hysterical mannerisms in search of a character. Jenny is a hot mess who may or may not be living out of her car, and who’s definitely out of a job because she’s more focused on “manifesting my ideal life.”
She also wants to do some manifesting on behalf of her little sister, so she surreptitiously records Anne rattling off the quiz-show answers one night and slips it on Twitter, where Jenny still has a lot of followers “from that time when Elon Musk yelled at me.” By the morning, “Quiz Lady” has gone viral and the “Can’t Stop the Quiz” producers call offering Anne a slot in their upcoming auditions.
Anne has zero interest in actually going on the show (“I’m not good at being looked at,” she explains), but making money has become a matter of some urgency for her: It turns out that the sisters’ mom has run off to Macao with her rest-home boyfriend, leaving behind an $80,000 debt to a local bookie who, trying really really hard to be sinister, kidnaps Mr. Linguine and demands payment in two weeks.
So, off they go to Philadelphia for the audition, fighting along the way before they eventually land in a history-themed motel whose desk clerk is Tony Hale in full Ben Franklin regalia. (Another odd trend at TIFF: Hale in bad wigs, something you can find in this film and in “Woman of the Hour.”)
Of course, Anne gets on the show, and there’s plenty of hysteria along the way, and plenty of pitched battles between the sisters who blame each other for their problems. At a festival where the best comedies (“American Fiction,” “Dumb Money”) have had varying degrees of subtlety to go along with the laughs, “Quiz Lady” spends most of its time being loud, broad and silly. That’s sort of the point, but it can also wear thin when the second most heartwarming scene in the movie comes from Will Ferrell.
(As for the first most heartwarming scene, we are not going to spoil that priceless cameo.)
Still, Awkwafina and Oh have the comedic chops to score a fair number of times and also to turn the dial toward genuine emotion when it comes time to do that. Jason Schwartzman and Holland Taylor have moments as a quietly vicious “Can’t Stop the Quiz” champion and a perpetually cranky neighbor, respectively. This isn’t an awards movie and it’s hardly on a level with the best comic films to debut at this year’s fall festivals, but it may well go down easy when it hits the streamers.
“Quiz Lady” will be released by 20th Century Studios on Nov. 3 on Hulu.