It is a well-known Hollywood tradition for a famous actor to portray a character opposite of their usual successful and driven persona – to play a loser, an oddball, or a recluse. In Quiz Lady, the new comedy on Hulu, comedian Awkwafina (also known as Nora Lum, who gained attention for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell) takes on the role of Annie Yum, a slacker in her thirties who is obsessed with a daily quiz show. The film’s twist is her unlikely partnership with Sandra Oh, who plays against her usual type as Jenny, Annie’s bold and youthful older sister.
The main idea is promising, but the execution is rough. Quiz Lady, directed by Jessica Yu and written by Jen D’Angelo, struggles to find a consistent tone, jumping from satire to heartfelt moments to absurdity in a way that is more grating than funny. The Yum sisters are exaggerated caricatures of childhood trauma meant to be comedic. In a brief flashback to 1996, we learn that Jenny dealt with her chaotic and dysfunctional home by acting out, while her younger sister Annie turned to TV and her beloved pug, Mr. Linguini. Annie becomes obsessed with the quiz show Can’t Stop the Quiz, which is more of a satire than a tribute, and its clumsy but dependable host Terry McTier (played by Will Ferrell, who is also a producer).
Every night, Annie follows a routine of setting an alarm for a quiz show, turning on the TV, and answering questions quickly with her old friend Mr. Linguini. This routine continues even in the present, where Annie works a dull job in accounting in Pennsylvania and has limited social interactions with her kind but confused neighbor Francine (played impressively by Holland Taylor in a small role). However, Annie’s simple life is disrupted when her mother disappears from her retirement home due to a gambling addiction and a trip to Macau. In the midst of this chaos, Jenny arrives and takes up residence on Annie’s couch, serving more as a comedic prop than an actual person – we first see her being hit by a car and then immediately yelling at the driver.
Annie and Jenny both portray exaggerated childlike qualities, extending beyond the normal behavior that arises when a family is confined together. Annie walks with an overly slouched posture and her face displays exaggerated expressions of frustration, worry, and determination. Meanwhile, Jenny exhibits the fashion sense, carefree attitude, and impulsive behavior of a teenager. Neither of them are well-equipped to pay off their mother’s gambling debts, which are owed to a gangster (Jon Park) who loves animals and has taken Mr Linguini hostage for ransom. Jenny, who aspires to be a life coach, tricks Annie into a plan to win the quiz show and defeat its long-standing champion Ron Heacox (played convincingly by Jason Schwartzman).
The chaotic and strained antics in this plan include: a viral video featuring Annie as the “Quiz Lady”, a sports bar in Philadelphia, an inn managed by a outdated Ben Franklin impersonator (played by Tony Hale), multiple fights between sisters, and an accidental drug trip (stressful, but the perfect opportunity to showcase the comedic chemistry between Oh and Awkwafina). (Additionally, the late Paul Reubens, also known as Peewee Herman, makes a cameo in one of his final film roles.) At times, Quiz Lady touches on social commentary (“People don’t like it when women are bad at things,” Annie says. “But they also don’t like it when women are good at things”), but it works better when the characters use assumptions of racism for personal gain. (“Oh! That’s actual racism,” Jenny exclaims when a character makes a real racist remark.) The 99-minute film is heavy on shouting and laughter, but lacking in punchlines.
In short, there are not enough believable and bankable characters. Many have discussed Sandra Oh’s long-awaited breakthrough in her career due to the lack of opportunities for East Asian actors in Hollywood, which led her to mostly supporting roles. Therefore, it is exciting to see Oh take on a role that is deliberately silly and unscrupulous, as she usually portrays salty, slightly neurotic, and hyper-competent women (such as in “Killing Eve” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) or shows nuanced empathy (like in Netflix’s short-lived series “The Chair”). However, Jenny’s character is tonally inconsistent, with Oh’s natural heart and gravitas conflicting with the juvenile and self-absorbed nature of her character. On the other hand, Awkwafina, playing Annie, does a better job, although she tends to overdo one aspect of her character. The film improves greatly when she breaks out of Annie’s aggressive frustration and shares genuine moments with her sister, including a quick and absurd quiz show ending.
Awkwafina and Oh do seem to have bonded in betting on two go-for-broke comic performances; what comedic engine Quiz Lady does have is thanks to their efforts, even if the performances strain at feature length. But this one’s not a winner.
The show “Quiz Lady” will be released on November 2nd on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ in other countries.