Prepare to see Sandra Oh as you’ve never seen her before. In nearly every scene in Quiz Lady, the Killing Eve star is dressed like she’s about to head to a girls night out to see the Barbie movie. Her long dark hair is streaked with violet highlights. She drapes herself with violent pinks and sparkly jewelry that looks less classy and more Claire’s Accessories. It’s the kind of fashion some might deride as “childish” in its girliness, while others might cheer it as dopamine dressing. Either way, this wardrobe is an invitation to for Oh to cut loose, and she grabs it with gusto.
Often sophisticated or sexy, the star of shows like Killing Eve, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Chair is frequently cast as witty but frazzled. Here, that role goes to Awkafina, while Oh gets to relish in playing the wild card of a family comedy peppered with silly hijinks, sensitive gangsters, sisterly squabbles, and Will Ferrell as a warm-hearted interpretation of Alex Trebek.
Star-studded and solidly fun, Quiz Lady is exactly the kind of comedy you might expect to find on Hulu — where it’s set to debut on Nov. 3.
What’s Quiz Lady about?
Directed by Jessica Yu, Quiz Lady centers on the tumultuous relationship between Asian-American sisters Anne (Awkwafina) and Jenny (Oh). Raised in a broken home rocked by divorce, gambling debts, and their mom’s various personal dramas, younger sister Anne focused her attention on her favorite trivia show (Can’t Stop the Quiz) and caring for her pet pug, Mr. Linguini. Meanwhile, Jenny chased down dreams, got into screaming matches with their mom, and cared for her kid sister in fitful spurts.
Years later, the sisters are grown up and essentially estranged when the loss of their mother pulls them back together. Oh, she’s not dead. She’s run off after incurring a massive gambling debt to a menacing bookie (an amusing and crush-worthy Jon Park), who dognaps Mr. Linguini, holding the pug for ransom until the sisters pay up. With Jenny on a kick that she could be a life coach (after acting, fashion design, and several other dreams didn’t pan out), the pair is determined to get Anne on the quiz show to win big and save their dog. That is, if she can beat the cocky contestant (Jason Schwartzman) currently on a major hot streak.
Sanda Oh is an outright delight in Quiz Lady.
From the moment she storms onscreen, Oh is game to go outrageous. Her outfits signal from the start that Jenny is an attention-seeker who refuses to act her age (whatever that means). And there’s a delicious freedom in watching Jenny chase down her dreams and mad impulses for better or worse. Sure, occasionally she may get hit by a car or accidentally dope her sister into a cartoon-painted hallucination. But she also offers us juicy experiences to live through vicariously, like telling off a smug B&B proprietor whose Benjamin Franklin schtick is all over the place. (To his credit, Tony Hale is absolutely hilarious as the hassled hotel clerk, sporting Franklin cosplay along with adult braces, and the ire that comes from combining the two.)
Often mesmerizing for her electrifying screen presence, Oh isn’t intense here, but channels that energy into a flighty enthusiasm that’s downright adorable. Jenny might be written off as a hot mess by her sister, but she’s exactly the kind of heroine a kooky comedy needs. She’s a lightning strike in a world riddled with bland fools who won’t take a risk. Chaotic as she may be, she’s pitch-perfect as a wild child sage determined to save her sister — not only from the wrath of a blustering bookie, but from her own low-stakes dreams.
Quiz Lady boasts fun supporting turns from Will Ferrell, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Hale, and Holland Taylor.
Desperate for peace, Anne is plagued by a people prone to drama. Her next-door neighbor (Holland Taylor) is not only a cantankerous old grouch committed to conspiracy theories and celebrity confusion, but also a potentially bleak window into what Anne’s reclusive life could lead to. The aforementioned Hale brings expected whimsy and laughs as a beaming but borderline hostile hospitality worker. Ferrell, who also produced, pops up to play the quiz show host, who is basically Trebek meets Buddy the Elf. And Schwartzman, who has played an array of quirky jerks in Wes Anderson movies, goes broader here, embodying a quiz show champion with a big smile but a dark ambition.
Unfortunately, Awkafina doesn’t stand out among this ensemble, even though her Anne is the film’s central protagonist. The actress who has shined as a daffy sidekick in movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Raya and the Last Dragon,
The Little Mermaid, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, loses her footing in the role of a straight man amid so many stooges.
We saw a similar struggle in this year’s Renfield, in which she played the straight-laced cop/love interest to Nicolas Hoult’s romance-seeking ghoul. While Awkwafina strives to bring cackle-worthy physical comedy to the role of the chronically repressed Anne, her stiffness never feels funny. Her best bit is when an under-the-influence Anne spins out in a series of ridiculous hallucinations. With a big goofy smile, loose limbs, and a volatile emotional state, Awkwafina is able to let loose and have fun with us. But for much of the film, she seems uncertain of how to find the midway between goofy and grounded, the latter of which she showed in the critically heralded drama The Farewell.
Quiz Lady is solid fun.
The screenplay by Jen D’Angelo is competently plotted, pulling the sisters out of Anne’s comfort zone and into a series of wild scenarios that result in public humiliation, personal revelations, and some physical gags that might well make you gag. The shut-down Anne seems more like a pitfall than a protagonist, sucking the fun out of the story through her scowls and self-loathing. However, Oh and the others are so buoyant that they keep Quiz Lady from sinking.
While the film wobbles along the way, when they get to the third act, it’s game on for good times. The sisters’ rivalry gets worked out in a smartly structured and gleefully entertaining payoff, and everyone gets what they deserve, for better or worse. A bit heavy-handed in its happy ending maybe, but Quiz Lady also gives us the gift of a surprise cameo that is inspired and powerfully playful. In the end, this comedy is a winner.
How to watch: Quiz Lady is now on Hulu.
UPDATE: Oct. 31, 2023, 1:32 p.m. EDT Quiz Lady was reviewed out of its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.