May 28, 2024

Chances are, you know someone like “Quiz Lady” Anne Yum. As played by Awkwafina, this socially awkward young woman works a boring CPA job by day, doing her best to blend in with the gray walls of her cubicle. But every evening at the same hour, Anne tunes in to her favorite game show and becomes a star — even if her flatulent old pug, Mr. Linguini, is the only witness — as she answers every question quickly and correctly.

The kind of comedy perfectly suited to the comfort of one’s own couch (thank you, Hulu), Jessica Yu’s “Quiz Lady” is the story of how, with the help of her outrageously extroverted older sister, Jenny (Sandra Oh), Anne overcomes her anxiety and agrees to appear as a contestant on “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” So what if she trips up in front of idol/host Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell) when she finally reaches the set of her beloved show?

The movie isn’t nearly as concerned with whether or not Anne wins — although screenwriter Jen D’Angelo (“Hocus Pocus 2”) comes up with a pretty funny idea for the game’s charades-based final round — as it is with mending all the broken connections in her family life. Anne’s the daughter of Korean-immigrant parents. Dad walked out in her tween years, leaving the poor kid to form an unhealthy fixation on bow tie-clad cornball McTeer in his absence.

Rebellious Jenny was older and already more independent when their parents split (best to ignore the age difference between Awkwafina and Oh and concentrate on their comedic chemistry instead), leaving home to seek her fortune. Now they’ve been reunited after their mother’s rest home calls with a poorly worded message: “We’ve lost your mom.” Turns out, Mom ran up a huge gambling tab and skipped the country (she’s living it up in Macao), and now her creditors are holding Mr. Linguini hostage until Anne pays up. How can she ever raise the money?

Granted, this is the level of plotting you expect from “Garfield: The Movie,” not Oscar-winning “Ping Pong Playa” director Yu and the likes of Ferrell and Awkwafina. But it’s the laughs that matter, and Oh surprises as Anne’s brash, trashy and totally unselfconscious big sis, who can get up on the bar at a Boston tavern and rally a room full of strangers. While Anne’s embarrassed by the slightest bit of conflict, disruptive Jenny abhors obedience — she’s a roll of Mentos dropped into her sister’s placid Diet Coke life.

For his part, Ferrell’s amusing (though less than you’d expect) as a fuddy-duddy Alex Trebek type, while Jason Schwartzman is the perfect degree of punchable as Ron Heacock, the show’s reigning champ. The trick to gracefully winning “Can’t Stop the Quiz” is to know it all without seeming like a know-it-all, whereas Ron’s a condescendingly smug jerk, with his bleached teeth and fussy hand makeup — the kind of hyper-specific details Yu and company get right, even if the broader strokes prove a bit too predictable. (Representing both phenomena at once is Tony Hale’s cameo as a Ben Franklin-impersonating Boston hotel clerk.)

Nothing’s more specific than the observations that derive from Awkwafina and Oh’s own backgrounds. With Yu at the helm, the movie is free to poke fun at immigrant parents, Asian stereotypes and the clash between prejudice and political correctness (as in this online response to a viral video of Anne answering questions at home: “How hating the quiz lady is racist, but liking her is even MORE racist”). The script folds stand-up and improv humor into a conventional enough story, to the point that “Quiz Lady” could have been a Disney movie, if not for the scene where a stressed-out Anne takes a whole bunch of drugs right before her big audition.

This isn’t highbrow comedy, but it is effective at being both funny and sincere, as the rowdy quiz-show scheme serves to bring the sisters together. Throw in a Paul Reubens cameo that the filmmakers couldn’t possibly have expected to be his last, and this modest-ambition comedy delivers. In the end, the only thing “Quiz Lady” had to get right was making people smile.

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