Picks and Pans Review: Quiz Show
Quick—and please, no prompting from the studio audience—name the only movie in recent memory to feature scene after scene of unforced literate, witty conversation between intelligent, learned people. Actually this isn't a quiz. It's the beautifully played Quiz Show, a fine—if not always factual—evocation of the 1950s game show scandal.
Director Robert Redford begins with viewers riveted to their TV screens following the rising fortunes of Twenty-One's current star-contestant Herbert Stempel (Turturro), an overbearing nebbish with bad glasses and worse teeth. But Turturro's not the unbeatable—and thus highly watchable—brain trust he seems. Like other contestants on the show, he is being spoonfed the answers before air time to insure healthy ratings. But the ratings, as Twenty-One's producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) notes, "have plateaued." That means it's time to have Turturro lose so that a new and charismatic contestant can step in. Enter Charles Van Doren (Fiennes), a Columbia University instructor and son of Pulitzer-winning poet Mark (Scofield). Before accepting the devil's candy deal proffered by Enright, Fiennes quips, "I'm just trying to imagine what Kant would make of this."
Soon the superlative Fiennes is a media darling, fending off coeds and trying to teach his courses, write his book on—ironically—Honest Abe and square his conscience. When the resentful Turturro squeals about Twenty-One's rigging to a Manhattan grand jury, the case attracts the attention of Richard Goodwin (Morrow), a Harvard Law graduate who forsook the rewards of Wall Street only to languish as counsel for a congressional subcommittee. He is initially stonewalled by uncooperative witnesses and stymied by a growing friendship with Fiennes (one example of Quiz Show's reliance on creative license). Morrow wants desperately to believe in Fiennes' innocence; when he learns otherwise, he wants desperately to protect him from exposure. Without being schematic, Redford wisely focuses the story on the relationship between Fiennes, as a Connecticut WASP who sells his soul, and Morrow, as a Jewish kid from Brookline, Mass., who makes a clear choice to forswear material goods in favor of ethics. The movie is full of wonderful period detail and telling moments: Twenty-One emcee Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald) practicing his delivery before showtime; Fiennes struggling to come clean with his father over a midnight snack. Quiz Show goes on too long, and it can't resist a few sententious pronouncements about television. But these are small quibbles about a movie that solidly hits the jackpot. (PG-13)"