Dysfunctional sister road trip films make for some hysterical comedies. The idea that two sisters with completely different personalities could set aside their differences for a common goal while experiencing genuine bonding moments backed by hilarity is nothing new. So what makes director Jessica Yu’s “Quiz Lady” so refreshing is that it takes place from the perspective of two Asian American sisters while subverting those dated tropes. Though its script is sometimes uneven, “Quiz Lady” is an R-rated, heartwarming, and unpredictable comedy.
Quiz Lady centers on Anne (Awkwafina) and Jenny Yum (Sandra Oh), two sisters from a broken family, with their dad running out on them and their mom building up a significant gambling problem. While most would succumb to the toxic stress of living in a hostile domestic environment, Anne finds her peace with the one and only non-judgmental and comforting parent, television. Obsessed with game shows, she becomes a trivia master and can rattle answers to nearly all of the questions asked by Can’t Stop the Quiz game show host Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell). Then there’s Jenny, a loud trainwreck of a sister whose failed business ventures and get-rich-quick scams have turned her into nothing more than a grifter who moves through life with no purpose.
Years passed, with Anne and Jenny becoming estranged. Anne is a quiet CPA who works at the back of the office and is virtually invisible to her co-workers. Jenny lives out of her car and struggles to make ends meet while waiting for her settlement checks to arrive in the mail. But when their mother abruptly leaves the retirement home that Anne pays for, they discover that she has fled to Macau. With their mother overseas, they are confronted by a local mob boss named Ken, who reveals that their mother owes him $80,000. If Anne and Jenny do not come up with the money, he will kill their precious family pug, Linguini.
With no idea how to pay the money to Ken, Jenny has the bright idea of using Anne’s trivia knowledge to play Can’t Stop The Quiz. The only problem is that Anne gets nervous whenever people are looking at her, and she refuses to audition for one of the player spots in the game. Not taking no for an answer, Jenny kidnaps Anne and takes her across the country to one of the auditions. Along the way, they get out of that small bubble they used to live in and reconnect after years of estrangement. And this madcap journey helps them discover more about themselves and each other. Even if it costs them a trip to the hospital and some of their dignity.
On the surface, “Quiz Lady” looks like a laugh-out-loud road trip comedy, but underneath all of that is a celebration of sisterhood, where two sisters with wildly different and clashing personalities come together to discover their purpose in life all the while reconnecting with each other after experiencing the pain and trauma of living with a toxic family. They had only each other to rely on. If their parents weren’t arguing, they were neglectful. Even their mother, who ran away and left them with an $80,000 debt, expects her daughters to join her in Macau to get away from the mob. So there’s a lot of deep-seated trauma that the two share, but that bonding and reconnecting experiences give their relationship more layers and nuance. Plus, the two break out of their comfort zones and play roles they wouldn’t usually play.
What’s refreshing about this comedy are the role reversals. Awkwafina turns in a more quiet and subdued performance, playing the introverted and rational Anne. Oh, however, does more of the heavy lifting with the physical comedy department. Jenny is the one often getting hit by cars, tripping over herself, or having big screen TVs fall on her. She even finds herself in the thralls of a mob house masquerading as an animal shelter. The changes don’t matter as the two can bounce off each other’s energy. Awkwafina reacts to Oh’s physically demanding performance with perfect timing, while Oh brings in some emotional depth by revealing some hard truths about the sacrifices she had to make to protect her sister.
And sure, there’s the usual bantering and bickering between the two, which is something expected from a comedy about dysfunctional sisters. But the goofs and gags only work because Awkwafina and Oh can strike a balance between each other without having their individual performances overshadow the other. This is a duet, and for this to be a comedy about sisters, they must share that limelight. And the two pull that off with perfection. So “Quiz Lady” offers the chance for Awkwafina to combine the comedy routines that we all know her for with her dramatic ability, like the one we saw in “The Farewell.” And for Oh, we know she can tap into being funny, but “Quiz Lady” has her pushing those boundaries in more ways than one.
One other aspect of “Quiz Lady” that should be celebrated is that even though the comedy centers on two Asian American sisters connected by the trauma of growing up in a broken family household. Individually, the two have buried their traumas so deep they only surface whenever they are around each other. Aside from those family themes, the film also subverts those tropes about Asians being bad drivers or being very submissive, with Jenny screaming racist after being accused of being a bad driver or Anne standing up for herself whenever her co-workers are dismissive of invading her space. And Oh, saying, “Do you know how hard it is to be an Asian woman?” punches up the comedy.
Though some gags don’t nail the landing and the expositional flashbacks feel outplace, “Quiz Lady” is a well-balanced comedy full of heart and laughs. Awkwafina and Oh make for a terrific pairing, with the former being able to bring together her comedy and drama performances into one role and the latter unafraid to take her comedic performances to the next level. Ferrell and Jason Schwartzman end up being welcomed supportive roles, with the former providing some of the more endearing moments about remembering why the best players aren’t in it for the glory, while the latter has some colorful, snarky attitude as a multigame champion on the verge of breaking the consecutive win record. And then there’s Linguini, who is just too cute. So even though there are still some things that need to be worked out, “Quiz Lady” ends up being a winner.
Quiz Lady exclusively on Hulu on November 3, 2023