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Quiz Lady review – Sandra Oh and Awkwafina can’t lift uneven comedy

It’s a grand Hollywood tradition for an established star to play against the ambition and drive that makes a career – to play a loser, a weirdo, a shut-in. Or, at the very least, a debased and dysfunctional version of themselves (Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, all of Pete Davidson’s semi-autobiographical comedy). The new Hulu comedy Quiz Lady stars the comedian Awkwafina – AKA the dramatic actor Nora Lum, who stole scenes in Crazy Rich Asians and won accolades for her work as a grieving granddaughter in The Farewell – in loser drag as Annie Yum, a slouchy thirtysomething recluse long obsessed with a daily televised quiz show. The film’s hook is her pairing with Sandra Oh, playing against type as Annie’s brash Peter Pan of an older sister, Jenny.

Related: Wingwomen review – French Netflix crime comedy has a cop-out ending

Good premise, bumpy ride. Quiz Lady, directed by Jessica Yu from a screenplay by Jen D’Angelo, struggles to balance its discordant tonal registers, veering from heightened satire to heartfelt to absurd in swings more grating than humorous. The Yum sisters are broad sketches of childhood trauma played for laughs. A quick intro set in 1996 reveals that, to cope with a chaotic, dysfunctional household, Jenny acted out; Annie, 10 years younger, turned inward, latching on to the TV and her adopted pug, Mr Linguini. She develops a perfectionist attachment to the Jeopardy-style Can’t Stop the Quiz, more satire than homage, and its bumbling but reliable host Terry McTier (Will Ferrell, also a producer).

The nightly routine – quiz show alarm, turn on the TV, rapid-fire answers with a now-ancient Mr Linguini – continues into the present, where Annie works a dead-end accounting-ish job somewhere in Pennsylvania; her only social interactions are with her benevolently addled elderly neighbor Francine (Holland Taylor, doing more than she should in a small role). Annie’s minimalist life is disrupted by her mother’s disappearance from her senior living facility – she has a gambling problem and ran off to Macau. Enter Jenny to crash on Annie’s couch, more comic prop than person – we meet her as she’s hit by a car, only to immediately rebound and scream at its driver.

Both Annie and Jenny are played as overly childlike, beyond the natural regression that occurs whenever nuclear family are cooped up together – Annie marches in an exaggerated slouch, her face pulled in distended expressions of exasperation, anxiety and focus. Jenny has the fashion, heedlessness and impulse control of a teenager. Neither are well-equipped to pay off their mother’s gambling debts, owed to an animal-loving gangster (Jon Park) who kidnaps Mr Linguini for ransom. Jenny, a nascent life coach, hoodwinks Annie into a plan to take the quiz show to the bank, unseating its loathed long-running champion Ron Heacox (a convincingly smarmy Jason Schwartzman).

The harebrained, often strained hijinks in this scheme include: a viral video branding Annie the “Quiz Lady”, a Philadelphia sports bar, an inn run by an anachronistic Ben Franklin impersonator (Tony Hale), several sisterly fights and, of course, one accidental drug trip (stressful, but the best showcase for Oh and Awkwafina’s comedic chemistry). (Also, a cameo from the late Paul Reubens, AKA Peewee Herman, in one of his final film roles.) Occasionally, Quiz Lady gestures at some kind of social commentary (“People don’t like when women are bad at things,” says Annie. “People don’t like when women are good at things either”) but functions marginally better when the characters play off woman-who-cried-racism assumptions for personal gain. (“Oh! Actual racism,” Jenny marvels when one character does takes a real racist jab.) The 99-minute film is long on yelling and guffaws, short on punchlines.

Short, also, on believable, bankable characters. Much has been written about Oh’s overdue career breakout after a lack of opportunities for east Asian actors in Hollywood sidelined her into complementary roles. So it’s a delight, conceptually, to see Oh, who has specialized in salty, slightly neurotic, hyper-competent women (Killing Eve, Grey’s Anatomy) or nuanced empathy (Netflix’s short-lived The Chair) sink her teeth into a deliberately silly, unscrupulous character. But Jenny is a tonal mishmash, the natural heart and gravitas that Oh brings to any role at odds with a juvenile, singularly self-absorbed character too often played as dumb. Awkwafina, as Annie, fares better, though she’s still overdoing one note; the film immediately improves when she breaks out of Annie’s hard-charging vexation for a few moments of genuine connection between the sisters, including a swift, sweetly absurd quiz show conclusion.

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.

  • Quiz Lady is available on 2 November on Hulu in the US and on Disney+ in other territories