The 17-year gap between Awkwafina and Sandra Oh doesn’t do much to hinder their believability as siblings in the straight-down-the-middle comedy “Quiz Lady,” in part because that was never the point. The against-type casting wants to be appreciated for subverting the obvious placement, an inside joke opened to all viewers familiar with Oh’s résumé of chronic high achievers and Awkwafina’s affinity for slackers with an affinity for the chronic.
As screwup big sis and whirlwind of chaos Jenny, Oh rocks the big pants and language about “manifesting” borrowed from girls a little less than half her age, while Awkwafina has the wardrobe, daily routine, and life’s-been-lived defeatism of a “98-year-old spinster” as the junior yet far more mature Anne. They mix like Fireball and water, but the odd couple nonetheless shares a sensational chemistry, building on the base amusement of seeing Oh let her extension-laden hair down and Awkwafina crimp the straight-man character into weird new shapes.
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The eager-to-please premise that we’re all just trying to have fun here, first and foremost the likable leads, comes in handy for a film that requires some goodwill to cruise past the feebler bits weighing down a healthy hit-to-miss ratio in this barrage of goofiness. Director Jessica Yu (a short film Oscar-winner once upon a time in the ‘90s) isn’t trying to reinvent the wheels that send the estranged, hijink-prone pair on a reconciliatory odyssey toward quiz show glory. There’s no self-serious emotional undercurrent to a family dynamic most meaningfully strained by a constipation incident decades prior, and the script from Jen D’Angelo declines to offer any solemn sagacities about the challenges overcome by Asian-American women. It’s nothing but a good-not-great time, in one sense a merciful reprieve from the touchy-feeliness and belabored Importance plaguing too many current comedies, and in another a slightness that can translate to an air of the inconsequential, which presumably put this title on the sluicing chute straight to Hulu.
The prodigal Jenny galumphs back into Anne’s orderly-to-a-fault life, organized around the nightly viewings of “Can’t Stop The Quiz” she hasn’t missed since she first set eyes on the bowtie of cornball host Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell, somehow the most normal, dialed-back presence on screen) in early girlhood, because Mom’s in a bad way with some bad dudes. She’s lammed it out of her nursing home and set a course for Macau, where she can leave behind her American gambling debts and rack up some fresh ones. But the gangster (Jonathan ‘Dumbfoundead’ Park) to whom she owes this money, a softie tong with a weak spot for ailing pooches, won’t forget the eighty grand so easily. He snatches Anne’s beloved pug Mr. Linguini, leaving her with no choice but to earn her way out of the hole by going up against the smarm-factory reigning champion Ron (Jason Schwartzman, flaunting camera-ready whitened teeth and foundation-pancaked hands) on the show she’s only dominated from the safe remove of her living room.
The path there is paved with the standard tomfoolery and oddballs, including Holland Taylor as a doddering neighbor unable to tell the difference between Alan Cumming and Paul Reubens (a throwaway bit with a payoff far more powerful than it has any right to be), and Tony Hale as the touchy proprietor of a Ben Franklin-themed inn lacking commitment to its colonial-era roleplaying. Oh has the most trouble locking on to the film’s off-center tonal target, her squawky hamming-up taking a buckshot-spray approach where others sharpshoot. In its weaker moments, the film sinks to this broad level, stuffing in the mandated yet never funny mixed-media drug sequence and the done-to-death slow-mo shot of hollering for dear life as a car spins out. To the credit of the latter, it does justify itself with a solid punch line about racism against Chinese drivers and the problematic impulse for its objects to wield it as an easy defense mechanism.
The final act locates its sentimental core not in the relationship between Anne and Jenny, one sketched with heavy-handed crayon strokes, but in Anne’s deeper love for the quiz show that gave her a surrogate father figure after her real one walked out. Awkwafina’s look of instantaneous mortification upon her Freudian-slip greeting of the long-admired Terry as “Dad” ranks as one of the film’s gut-bustingest moments, and it leads to a disarmingly sincere exchange in which he urges her not to let the anxiety of winning stop her from savoring the most exciting day of her life. Yu foregrounds the bond between sisters — much like the comparably agreeable yet unmemorable “Sisters,” which cast Tina Fey in the party-girl role and Amy Poehler as the glue holding their family together — but Jenny is really a party to Anne’s arc, as a withdrawn know-it-all gets a lesson in living. She learns to cut loose and enjoy the ride, the same relaxed openness to diversion this film wants for its viewers. Unlike the perfect-scoring Anne, however, “Quiz Lady” misses the mark from time to time. This isn’t disqualifying, but it won’t get anyone onto the comedy leaderboards, either.
“Quiz Lady” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released November 3 by Hulu.
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