The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (DreamWorks) celebrates supermom Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore): When life gives her a lemon, she doesn't just make lemonade—she writes a jingle for it! The wife of an alcoholic and the mother of 10 children, this talented ex-journalist spends her days cleaning, ironing, cooking, changing diapers, and transporting kids, but she carries a notebook for those moments when her muse pops in for a visit. By winning mail-in contests with her clever poems, lyrics, and slogans, she manages—barely—to keep her family housed and fed. Although the movie doesn't underline the irony, Evelyn has found a novel way to extract money from the '50s corporate big daddies who work to keep her down: The patriarchal culture taketh away, and the patriarchal culture giveth.
A reverent adaptation of a best-selling memoir by Terry Ryan, Prize Winner is an honest tear-jerker: It made me blubber not by laying on the you-must-pay-the-rent-but-I-can't-pay-the-rent bathos, but by alternating scenes of economic desperation with ironic '50s sunniness.
The screenwriter and first-time director is Jane Anderson, whose script for the TV movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (starring Holly Hunter) was one of the wittier in-your-face Americana satires of recent years. Anderson loves kitschy montages, and the film abounds in computer-generated trickery—appliances or bicycles that, thanks to some contest or other, appear with a little ding! when old ones break. Moore's Ryan (who narrates the film in a clever departure from the book) explains to the audience how these contests are judged and is instantly whisked through the air to a New York skyscraper where platoons of women (in period footage) sit opening envelopes. My, what technology can do these days!
Julianne Moore is not only one of our best actresses, she's in a league by herself as an impressionist. The crook of her arm as she stands in the kitchen with her hand on her hip, the way she delicately crosses her legs, the flash of a smile, the tinkling diction: It's all so '50s—or at least so '50s by way of talk shows, commercials, and movies. But Moore is not all surface. At her best, she's one of those actresses who hint at the tension between the mask and the person underneath—in this case (as in Far From Heaven), the person struggling to maintain the persona that her husband and neighbors expect to see and that her children need to see.
Evelyn's husband, Kelly Ryan (Woody Harrelson), is stiff and recessive—until he drinks. Then he transforms into the dark underbelly of the '50s male—enraged at his wife for stepping into the vacuum (and with that infuriating smile!) that his alcoholism and lack of financial success has left. An aspiring singer whose vocal cords were damaged in a car accident (we see it in a flashback—not pretty), Kelly veers back and forth between childlike dependence and abuse; chagrined after his drunken, dish-throwing outbursts, he serves Evelyn tea and calls her "Mommy." It's strange to see Harrelson in this part after all his wiggy countercultural turns. A straighter actor, a Ward Cleaver-type, might have made an eerier Kelly, although Harrelson's lingering serial-killer aura certainly gives you a frisson. He gets this demonic twisty-faced thing going and you expect hair to sprout on his face.
One might question why a family with such an unstable breadwinner would expand and expand. But back then, Catholics like the Ryans obeyed the command not to pull out. When a priest arrives to counsel Kelly on his outbursts, he focuses instead on Evelyn's wifely deficiencies. He adds, "No one says that life is easy." Although Evelyn's ardor for her husband clearly cools (he continues to call her "Mommy," but she stops calling him "Dad"), she keeps the family afloat, pleading for credit from an unsympathetic milkman ("I'm not a bank. … You want something in life, you gotta pay for it") and entering every last contest to help pay off the family debts. To add insult to injury, a Miss America contestant on television says there shouldn't be a woman president because "women are high-strung and emotional people." But Evelyn doesn't bristle: She's a model of Christian forbearance. It's only her daughter Terry (Ellary Porterfield) who expresses anger—the same daughter who would move to San Francisco and cut her hair short and write a book memorializing this American saint.
A director like Jonathan Demme might have hit the kitsch motif more glancingly and used less predictable music. But Anderson finds the perfect loopy-humanist tone in scenes with Laura Dern as a housewife and fellow prizewinner who reaches out to Evelyn through the mail. It helps that Dern is beautiful and buoyant, with none of the beyond-the-call-of-duty bedragglement she had in her last role, in We Don't Live Here Anymore. The only serious mistake in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is the ending, in which Evelyn's real children appear. Why don't they just pose on the porch of the family's old house instead of making like actors and pretending to go through their mother's stuff? It's not just the shift from stylization to bogus realism that makes you squirm. It's the icky hard sell, complete with schlock piano chords. All it needs is a corny jingle.