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‘Quiz Lady’ Review: Sandra Oh and Awkwafina Have Infectious Chemistry in Heartfelt Hulu Comedy

Routine keeps Anne, the protagonist of Jessica Yu’s endearing comedy Quiz Lady (played by Awkwafina), safe. The 30-something lives alone in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her pug Mr. Linguini and rarely goes off script. She spends most of her waking hours crunching numbers as an accountant. She sets two alarms: One tells her to stand up occasionally in the office so she won’t get blood clots and die; the other reminds her to tune into her favorite program, Can’t Stop the Quiz. 

The game show and its Alex Trebek-style host Terry McTeer (a scene-stealing Will Ferrell) have been the most consistent parts of Anne’s life. In a zippy intro, major moments of the quiet woman’s existence — her parents getting divorced, her sister leaving home — unfold as she sits watching episodes of the show. When parked in front of the television, Anne loses herself in the categories and the questions. She whispers answers to herself while gently stroking her dog. Anne loves Can’t Stop the Quiz, and in Quiz Lady she harnesses that love to save her family. 

Quiz Lady

The Bottom Line A dynamic duo.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Release date: Friday, Nov. 3
Cast: Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Jason Schwartzman, Holland Taylor, Tony Hale, Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park, Will Ferrell
Director: Jessica Yu
Screenwriter: Jen D’Angelo
Rated R, 1 hour 39 minutes

If it were up to Anne, that last part wouldn’t be true. Quiz Lady opens with a bunch of bad news. Anne gets a call that her mother is missing from her nursing home, having absconded to Macau to avoid her massive gambling debt, and her growing number of infractions means she can’t return to the center. It turns out that the home attendees called Anne’s sister Jenny (Sandra Oh), too, forcing an unlikely and unwanted sororal reunion. 

The women haven’t seen each other in years, and their personalities couldn’t be more different. Where Anne wears slacks and hates to be noticed, Jenny is an itinerant soul whose clothes correlate with whichever life dream she’s decided to pursue. The chemistry between Awkwafina and Oh proves to be more layered and touching with each leg of their characters’ zany mission. Anne and Jenny’s problems start with the nursing home and escalate when their mother’s bookie (Jon Park) kidnaps Mr. Linguini as collateral. In order to get Anne’s dog back, the sisters must pay their mother’s debt in two weeks. 

Quiz Lady is a film that wears its silly contrivances and heart proudly. It may not be consistently funny — the jokes start to feel one-note by the end — but fine performances from its stacked cast will make it an appealing Friday night option when it premieres on Hulu in November. 

Recently inspired to become a life coach, Jenny decides to kill two birds with one stone. She makes a viral video of her sister watching Can’t Stop the Quiz, often answering the questions correctly before the contestants, in hopes that the show’s producers will invite Anne to audition. They can win the money to pay their mother’s debt and Anne could boost her self-esteem by taking a risk. The plan works and Anne — after a faux kidnapping, a nearly fatal crash and an explosive roadside argument — grudgingly agrees. 

Awkwafina and Oh let loose and tackle their roles with an infectious enthusiasm, but the repetitive nature of the humor and the strained physical comedy can sometimes edge their characters toward caricature. Awkwafina slumps her shoulders and delivers most of Anne’s lines in trademark deadpan style. To capture Jenny’s dramatic nature, Oh indulges in a hyperfemme style (costume design is by Brenda Abbandandolo) and shrieks whenever her character has an aha moment. 

The pair’s performances are most impactful when the screenplay doesn’t force them to play up their differences so heavy-handedly. One scene in which Jenny responds to her sister sharing a secret — Oh widens her eyes, furrows her brows and curves her lips into a faintly disgusted frown — more pointedly reflects her occasional lack of tact than the jokes about her grifts. 

Anne and Jenny’s journey to California, where the quiz show is taped, forces the sisters to confront family history and their own years of poor communication. The pair also encounter a band of zany characters, from Anne’s curmudgeonly neighbor (Holland Taylor) to a Benjamin Franklin impersonator (Tony Hale) to an undefeated Can’t Stop the Quiz contestant (Jason Schwartzman). Each helps Anne and Jenny rekindle their relationship, shepherding Quiz Lady to its heartfelt conclusion.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Distributor: Disney, Hulu
Production company: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Jason Schwartzman, Holland Taylor, Tony Hale, Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park, Will Ferrell
Director: Jessica Yu
Screenwriter: Jen D’Angelo
Producers: Will Ferrell, Jessica Elbaum, Maggie Haskins, Itay Reiss, Jen D’Angelo, Awkwafina, Sandra Oh
Executive producer: Alex Brown, Erika Hampson
Cinematographer: Adrian Peng Correia
Production designer: Jeff Mann
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Editors: Nat Sanders, Susan Vaill
Composer: Nick Urata
Casting director: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy
Rated R, 1 hour 39 minutes

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