Though she’s known for her dramatic work primarily on television’s Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve, Sandra Oh enthusiasts are all too aware that the actress has a serious talent for the comedic flare; The Princess Diaries, anyone? But even still, the absolute let-loose mentality the actress adheres to for Quiz Lady is another level entirely, with her girly attire, violet-highlighted weave, and general lack of vanity giving way to a character that effortlessly steals the thunder away from the equally comedically capable Awkwafina, here embodying the “straight man” comedy archetype and the titular “quiz lady”.
Directed by Jessica Yu, Quiz Lady centres on the tumultuous relationship between Anne (Awkwafina) and Jenny (Oh), Asian-American sisters who come from a broken home that, as we learn through sporadic flashbacks, was riddled with drama brought on by their mother’s gambling addiction. To combat her loneliness, a young Anne poured her attention towards “Can’t Stop The Quiz”, a nightly trivia show that she would often know all the answers to, saying them out loud from the comfort of her living room.
Given Anne’s intellect and Jenny’s impulsive behaviour, we aren’t surprised that the two meld their strengths together to get Anne on the show itself when their mother flits off to Macau in a bid to escape her bookie (an amusing Jon “Dumbfounded” Park). She’s left them with a sizeable debt, he’s gone and kidnapped Anne’s prized pug, Mr Linguini, for ransom, and, despite her best efforts to avoid the atmosphere of the live show, Anne knows competing is the only way to solve their dilemma. It’s all a bit ridiculous, but everyone’s on board with the outlandish premise and, therefore, it mostly executes its comedic temperament successfully.
And though Awkwafina delivers a fine performance, and she’s surrounded by other capable genre talent as Will Ferrell (as the long-suffering quiz show host), Jason Schwartzman (as a cocky contestant currently on a record hot streak), and Holland Taylor (as Anne’s cantankerous neighbour), it’s Oh that dominates Quiz Lady and makes it as watchable as it is. Storming on screen, there’s a delicious freedom to her performance that we get to vicariously live through as she says and does things that we could only wish to; one particularly grand exchange takes place between her and a Benjamin Franklin B&B-owning cosplayer who she delights in pointing out the contradictions he’s asserting with his tonally and factually wrong shtick. To his credit, Tony Hale is equally as game for the challenge as said mismatched Franklin, and one can’t help but wonder how much back-and-forth improv took place between the two.
Having easily shone as the sidekick in such features as Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi, and managing to inject a bit more levity to her straight-laced appearance in Renfield, it is a shame that Awkwafina isn’t allowed to be freer across Quiz Lady‘s easy 99 minute running time. Whilst she plays the character as intended, when everyone else is having so much fun on screen (even Taylor gets a great gag about her love of Alan Cumming, which results in a truly wild cameo) it’s a little disheartening that she doesn’t get to quite have as much, save for one sequence where she’s doped up on hallucinogens to overcome her stage fright, but, again, it’s an action guided by the energy of Oh.
That being said, Quiz Lady projects enough charm as an overall feature that we are more than willing to go along on the ride with Awkwafina and, especially, Oh. It may not always land the joke and, in typical fashion, it has a slightly dramatic third act that is purely designed for our characters to overcome whatever metaphorical roadblock is in their way, but in capping off with a well executed “Where are they now?” on-screen scroll, Jen D’Angelo‘s script maintains its knowing wit enough for us to name Quiz Lady a real winner.