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“Quiz Lady” redefines star personas with heartfelt comedy

The official movie poster for Jessica Yu’s new film “Quiz Lady.” The movie is distributed by Hulu and was released on Nov. 3 in the United States. PUBLIC DOMAIN

This review contains spoilers.

Director Jessica Yu’s 2023 film “Quiz Lady” achieves national success by subverting the established personas of its stars, allowing them to redefine their images in this heartfelt comedy.

Sandra Oh’s breakthrough role in the United States was on the ABC medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” Over the course of ten seasons, she captivated audiences and garnered five consecutive Emmy nominations. Following her departure from the show, she has remained in the spotlight by starring in more dramatic roles like Eve Polastri in BBC America’s “Killing Eve” and developing an impressive voice acting catalog. 

Nora Lum, professionally known as Awkwafina, gained fame as a rapper and comedy star in films such as “Ocean’s Eight” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” She won a Golden Globe for her dramatic role as Billi Wang in Lulu Wang’s 2019 film “The Farewell” but quickly returned to comedy with the original Comedy Central series “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens,” and several voice acting roles in Disney films.

In the public eye, these women often find themselves in typecast roles. Awkwafina tends to play the loud comedic sidekick, while Oh is pigeonholed as the dramatic actress who assumes serious roles in prestigious television. “Quiz Lady” subverts these typecasts and allows the actresses freedom to experiment. 

The film follows two sisters: Anne Yum, played by Awkwafina, and Jenny Yum, played by Oh. Ever since her troubled childhood, Anne watched the popular televised quiz show, “Can’t Stop the Quiz,” which is similar to NBC’s “Jeopardy.” Despite not being on close terms, the two sisters find themselves in an unexpected situation. Anne and Jenny must collaborate and raise $80,000 to reclaim their beloved dog, Mr. Linguini, who was kidnapped by a gang. To do so, Jenny applies to become a participant in the quiz show by creating a viral video.

Contrary to Awkwafina’s previous roles, Anne is quiet and secluded. She works in a cubicle and comes home to a modest and organized house where she watches the quiz show every night. Awkwafina portrays Anne with such remarkable exceptionalism that her discomfort around others is palpable. 

At work, Anne deliberately makes herself as inconspicuous as possible. When speaking with her neighbor, she rushes through the conversation and runs anxiously inside her house. Her anxiety dissipates once she sits in the comfort of her home with her dog. When the quiz show begins, Anne is truly in her element. Laser-focused on the television, she deciphers the questions and confidently blurts out the answers.

In contrast, Jenny is the opposite of Anne. She is loud, occasionally abrasive and charismatic. Jenny, characterized by her spirituality, navigates various jobs to find what sparks her passions while living in her car. Though reminiscent of the roles that initially brought Awkwafina fame, Oh plays the character perfectly. 

Earlier in the film, Jenny speaks with a coffee shop employee, motivating her to pursue her professional dreams beyond working at the coffee shop. Jenny’s charisma oozes from the screen, immediately investing the audience. 

The two lead performances are both the driving forces and main attraction of the film. Watching the actresses take on roles differing from what audiences are used to is incredibly compelling. Beyond the larger context of their careers, Awkwafina and Oh’s performances are excellent. They perfectly balance comedy and drama when needed, they will make you laugh out loud and encourage you to reminisce on your own relationships shortly after.

The visual distinctions between the two sisters’ appearances are also evident through their unique wardrobes designed by Brenda Abbandandolo, the costume designer on set. Anne dresses modestly, wearing all-grey long-sleeve sweaters and skirts and dressing like a stereotypical 50-year-old. Contrastingly, Jenny — despite being in her forties — dresses like a 20-year-old. Her outfits are bright in color, featuring oversized hoodies, crop tops, cargo pants and short shorts; she looks as if she belongs in a TikTok video. These stylistic contrasts illustrate Jenny’s struggle to reconcile with her past, clinging to her youth as she longs to find her place in the world. These excellent costuming choices visually convey the nature of the characters’ personalities while also providing compelling and comedic visual contrasts throughout the film. 

However, the over-the-top plot of the film is where the film fails due to its weak narrative structure. The Yum sisters’ mother, struggling with a gambling addiction, refused to repay the gangsters. This leads to the gang retaliating by kidnapping Jenny and Anne’s dog. Instead, the girls’ mother flees her retirement home to escape the country. It feels as though the rest of the film was written without a clear direction for the triggering event, and the script could have benefitted from a more realistic one.

Beyond the flashy exterior of the quiz show with its high-energy ambiance and the comedic elements lies the heart of “Quiz Lady”: two sisters learning to love each other again despite their differences. At the start, the pair did not understand each other since they lead vastly conflicting lives. Their familial bond was the only thread tying them together. However, as the story progresses, they overcome their differences and let each other in. Slowly, they begin to understand each other and realize they have more in common than they thought — culminating in a beautifully emotional climax. 

“Quiz Lady” might not be the best movie of the year, but it is an excellent choice for a weekend with friends or family. The jokes are hilarious, the relationships are heartfelt and the performances are impeccable. If you are looking for a fun, feel-good movie, I cannot recommend “Quiz Lady” enough.

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