Just Like Her Family, Nora Lum And Her Friends Are Still Serving Up Great Combinations

I grew up in a decidely lower middle class upbringing in Flushing, Queens, not even as well as the likes of my onetime neighbors Fran Drescher, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.  Going out to eat was a rare treat, usually reserved for alternate Sunday nights, and quantity often trumped quality in our options.  Fortunately, there were many decent Chinese restaurants to feed the sizable Jewish population of the era; my family had a particular loyalty to one where the owners always would give us extra helpings of our favorites and knew exactly what we’d order.  My dad never wavered from his obsesssion with their roast pork spare ribs; the rest of us would order combination plates where the butterfly shrimp with bacon, the roast pork lo mein, the shrimp with lobster sauce and the exceptionally greasy egg rolls never failed to satisfy.

But for the really special occasions, especially when someone else was treating, we like many families sought out a place called Lum’s, one of Flushing’s finest, and which actually offered some truly excellent fare as good or better as anything you’d be able to get in Chinatown.  Just the thought of their combination plates even today still makes me salivate.

So I admit as a result of that upbringing I’m predisposed to liking the granddaughter of the founder of that pu-pu palace, one Nora Lum, who you might know better as Awkwafina, and who celebrates today’s version of that neighborhood, now heavily populated by East Asian immigrants, in her charming and often hilarious Comedy Central series AWKWAFINA IS NORA FROM QUEENS.  And as a result I looked forward to last night’s Hulu drop of her new comedy film QUIZ LADY, not that I needed that to be interested in the concept.  After all, a storyline about someone obsessed with a game show is something else I can relate to.

This well-received jewel, introduced earlier this fall’ to strong reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, is co-produced and co-stars Awkwafina and the versatile Sandra Oh as sisters with a sizable age gap and long-simmering rift, exacerbated by their upbringing by a single, gambling-obsessed and seldom seen mother.  As PURE WOW’s Karelle McKay describes it:

Written by Jessica Yu and directed by Jen D’Angelo, Quiz Lady follows a socially awkward woman named Anne (Awkwafina), who has a vast love for game show trivia. When she receives a phone call from the nursing home her mom is residing in stating that she is nowhere to be found, her rebellious older sister, Jenny (Oh), comes back to town.

To make matters worse, the sisters get approached by a gangster named Ken, who tells them their mom left behind a gambling debt of $85K. After their family dog is kidnapped and held for ransom, Anne and Jenny must think of a way to buy him back. Naturally, there’s only one solution: enter to compete in the trivia game show, Can’t Stop the Quiz, and win the grand prize. Sounds easy, right?

And from that point on, the film offers up a combination plate of both over-the-top comedy road trip experiences drawing from the likes of THE HANGOVER with some more tender moments of sisters finding a common ground.  And while I was personally rooting for Awkfafina, I was disappointed that her Anne is not much more than a l0wer-key version of her lovable schlub that she portrays with more hilarious and engaging results in her TV series, and doesn’t take advantage of the considerable talents we have seen from her in the likes of CRAZY RICH ASIANS and her dramatic breakout role in THE FAREWELL.

In contrast Oh, who has been acclaimed for her more dramatic roles in the likes of the BBC AMERICA cult hit KILLING EVE and, of course, her years on GREY’S ANATOMY, plays more against type.  McKay is outright gushing in her praise:

In the past, the Grey’s Anatomy alum has been known to play rather similar roles. But this one is unlike any character she has portrayed. And she does a damn good job too. From her countless tattoos to her colorful hair, Oh makes the character her own. With her stellar comedic timing and quippy one-liners, the actress is a pleasure to watch onscreen.

The supporting cast is strong and while playing more to their expected types, they aren’t purely satirical roles.  Will Ferrell is the game show emcee, clearly drawing from his SNL experience as Alex Trebek in their hilarious CELEBRITY JEOPARDY! spoofs.  But while his Terry McTear may be inspired by Trebek, much as the movie’s game show is inspired by JEOPARDY!, it’s much more than mere reiteration.  Indeed, game show geeks (and I’m well aware many of you who read this are) will recognize elements of the far less successful 80s charades game BODY LANGUAGE in the quiz’s big money bonus round, and it serves as the foundation that ultimately brings Awkwafina and Oh closer together and, ultimately, leads to the feel-good conclusion.  Holland Taylor, getting better with age, is her usual brilliant quasi-bitchy foil, in a manner reminiscent of but evolved from her TWO AND A HALF MEN experience.  And Tony Hale, understated in VEEP, has a hilarious turn as a Ben Franklin celebrant that skewers the Philadelphia culture and people that served as D’Angelo’s upbringing in much the way Awkwafina pays homage to Flushing, Forest Hills and the whole lot of Central Queens neighborhoods she and I once called home.

But amidst the hilarity and the pop culture reference is what can’t be dismissed as important on-screen representation, which ASAMNEWS’ Erin Chew clearly was moved by:

A very interesting storyline and comedy that touches on themes such as family dynamics and dysfunction, sisterly bonds, and confronting financial woes. Quiz Lady is directed by Academy Award-winning director Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons, The Life & Work of Mark O’Brien), who wanted to direct a film that goes against the stereotypical grain about being Asian American – that all fall into the model minority myth.

In a recent interview with AsAmNews, Yu shared how she wanted to direct a comedy that shows how imperfect and flawed Asian American families are and can be, and that this is real life.

“As an Asian American, I am imperfect and flawed as is my family, friends and many other Asian Americans in my network. Our lives are not perfect and we all do not live a model minority life. I wanted to explore this specific experience which is more common than not and it is these layers of complexity that helped establish and added substance to the characters in the film”, Yu expressed.

And McKay further observed that there even beyond ethnicity, the film showcases another important dynamic not often seen in comedies:

While Quiz Lady brings the laughs, it also manages to pull at the heartstrings. It doesn’t shy away from talking about issues that are real and relatable. Watching the sisters try to fix their broken relationship, Anne struggling with her social anxiety and Jenny searching for her purpose in life, the viewer has a chance to see the people behind the jokes and gags—which makes the movie that much more impressive.

The overall reviews to date have skewed toward mediocre; more mainstream publications have been less laudatory than these that seem to target niche audiences.  But for a streaming service, particularly one that hasn’t had a lot of really desirable movies in its portfolio such as Hulu, there’s nothing wrong with that.  And, like any good combination plate at a place like Lum’s, there’s something to please anyone’s particular tastes, even if you’re not a fan of everything else on it.

For someone like Yu, it’s the meatier, more substantial stuff.  For someone like me, it’s the potential I see in someone loving a charades format as much as Mark Goodson did in his later years (hey, Rob Mills, if these strikes continue, you can always bring back BODY LANGUAGE, and I bet Awkwafina might actually want to be involved).

And for Hulu, it’s a darn good reason to pay for the service even at a time when not much else series-wise is happening.

So dig in.  And be sure to save some for the next morning in take-home cartons.  Lum’s always seemed to have better quality ones that didn’t leak.

Thanks again, Nora.

Until next time…

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