Jenny (Sandra Oh), a 40-something ball of chaos, is introduced in Quiz Lady the way you might expect of someone whose life savings are contingent on a hazardous fish bone-related lawsuit against a chain restaurant called Choochie’s: off in the distance, skittering heedlessly across the street before she’s suddenly struck by a car. Naturally, she pops right back up before having a meltdown over the mechanical entrance to the senior home where her younger sister, Anne (Awkwafina), is frustratingly watching from inside.
It’s often said that comedic roles are deceptively trickier to play than dramatic ones, and Jenny is the type of character that would seem rife with potential pitfalls for an actor like Oh: an over-the-top eccentric whose humor can easily fall into caricature. Yet, “Quiz Lady,” a mostly winning comedy directed by Jessica Yu, is elevated most of all on the shoulders of Oh’s delightful and nuanced performance.
When Jenny shows up at the senior home, Anne is already fed up. Their mother has run off to Macau to escape an $80,000 debt she owes Ken (Jon Park), a doggy daycare-owning gangster, and Anne naturally will be the one to take care of things. It’s the way things have been ever since Jenny, who has always lived a more free-spirited, if erratic and unstable, life, exited from their lives and left Anne to take care of their mother.
Isolated and working as an office drone, Anne’s only form of solace is a Jeopardy-esque quiz show she’s watched religiously since childhood. When Ken steals Anne’s dog as collateral, Jenny, feeling the surge of her latest pipe dream of becoming a life coach, kidnaps Anne and drives her to an audition for the show in the hopes she’ll win the money to pay off the debt.
Like so many road trip buddy comedies, the effectiveness of the enterprise rests, arguably more than the writing or direction itself, on the balance and chemistry between the central duo. And “Quiz Lady” in particular is predicated upon a role-reversing gamble: Typically a dramatic actress, Oh is playing the freewheeling Jenny, while her co-star, Awkwafina, who aside from her role in “The Farewell” has mostly made her name as the often cartoonish comic relief (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Little Mermaid”), is the serious and high-strung Anne.
But the pair finds an easy harmony together, even as Oh does most of the heavy lifting. While Awkwafina’s little-sister turn often falls into uptight, one-note outbursts, Oh is a charismatic and natural counterbalance as the outsize Jenny. She knows when to reel her choices in and, most important, imbues Jenny’s kookiness with an emotional depth bubbling just underneath the surface.
The funniest scene comes toward the end, when Jenny and Anne play a high-stakes game of charades on the quiz show. As they hit their stride, the sequence, punctuated by a strikingly tender moment that would have rung forced in lesser hands, floats off the comedic brilliance of Oh, at once natural and ridiculous, as her answers burst out of her via an intuition that could only exist through a lifetime of sisterhood.