starring Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Jason Schwartzman, Will Ferrell
written by Jen D'Angelo
directed by Jessica Yu
by Walter Chaw I don't hold any particular rancour for Jessica Yu's confused, miscast Quiz Lady. No bile, even when it seems to be trafficking in racist tropes rather than satirizing them, even when its feeble attempts at wit and timing fall shrilly by the wayside. It's always a minefield for me to review a film by an Asian American this negatively, especially an Asian American woman working from a script by a (white) woman, but there's a point at which our community should be allowed to make disasterpieces and still get another shot, if equality is the real goal. There's a point, too, where pulling punches or pretending not to have seen something becomes patronizing and an act of making a work invisible, which is what we're often complaining about in the first place. I'll allow that Quiz Lady likely has an audience and that this film exists at exactly the wrong frequency for me to tolerate, much less appreciate; I do worry, however, that the range in which it vibrates is the one in which people who like to laugh at my people live.
Let me give you an example. Towards the end of the film, Jenny (Sandra Oh), the screwball sister of our dour hero, Anne (Awkwafina), steals a dog from a group of Tong gangsters. As she's running away from them in hilarious slow-motion, they try to stop her by throwing shuriken (ninja stars) at her. The joke is either a complex metaplay in which these young men playing at Asian organized criminals have so misread the room that they believe the Tong use throwing stars instead of guns (and, in their crime cosplay, have neglected to learn how to use them well), or that these chinks are using ninja weapons to try to kill a woman mincing away in a pink jumpsuit across a strip-mall parking lot. Here's another example: After a distracted Jenny veers off the road, nearly killing a fellow motorist who screams "learn to drive!" out his window, Jenny responds by calling him a "racist"--whereupon it's revealed the motorist is also Asian. The joke here, as I scan through my humour database for cross-references, appears to be that Jenny's kneejerk playing of the race card, in regards to someone noticing how she's fulfilling one of its most pernicious stereotypes, is found to be wildly off-base because the antagonist is Asian. This devalues her sensitivity to racism while suggesting that Asian Americans cannot have internalized racism against those of the same race. Do I have that right?
I guess it matters that the writer is white, after all.
The story, for what it's worth, is one of Asian American latchkey generational trauma in which women have fraught relationships with their parents. This manifests in Jenny gaining super- strength and speed whenever she's compared to her terrible mother, and in Anne when she accidentally calls quiz-show host Terry McTeer (a decisively neutered Will Ferrell) "Dad." Anne, it seems, is a meek, miles-of-bangs internal auditor at a cubicle hell where no one notices her--and a secret game-show wiz. This is because that world is the only place she ever felt safe, given the chaos of her parents' marriage and her sister Jenny's extreme narcissistic solipsism. I don't know who had the hot idea of casting Sandra Oh as Judy Holliday, but the force of that tissue rejection is explosive. Oh can be very, very good in the right role--serious-unto-dour, violent, angry--or she can be this weird, desperate-seeming animatronic simulacrum of a bubble-headed dingbat shoehorned into cutaway micro-miniskirts and platform sneakers. I know that's the character, but I had not one moment of believing that Sandra Oh could ever have been so emotionally damaged and incurious as to become Jenny. Set against her is Awkwafina in too-large blazers, high-waisted mom-pants, and a perma-skulk that reduces her to an understudy for Anybodys in some misbegotten community-theatre production of West Side Story. The ditz and the turbo-nerd: full frontal assaults on stereotypes of Asian women, or just smearing that shit all over themselves? You be the judge. Jenny tricks Ann into competing on the show, then it's the requisite flop-sweat gag, the requisite drug-trip gag, the requisite underdog-makes-a-comeback trope, and the requisite unearned heartfelt-pap uplift resolution.
The problem is there's no ironic separation in Quiz Lady. You can't do this kind of humour without establishing trust with your audience. Spike Lee gets away with Bamboozled not only because he's Spike Fucking Lee, but also because he fills that film with images from the history of devastating racial burlesque to compare against his characters exploiting their Blackness for power and acceptance in an essentially racist society. In Quiz Lady, there's no history, just 99 minutes of Long Duk Dong played for the same yuks. Listen, the sisters' family name is "Yum." It's not even a crooked line connecting the bad old days to today, and getting an Asian American cast and director to sign off on this stuff is grotesque. Let me put it in a way that might land with more familiarity for the colonizers: it's dishonourable. So bully for underrepresented creators making a movie the ruling class has been making since pictures started moving, I guess. Progress ain't what it used to be.