||If it does nothing else, “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” proves once again that Julianne Moore fits beautifully into a 1950s setting. But Jane Anderson’s encomium to a housewife’s grit, resilience and cleverness in holding her family together, based on a real-life memoir, doesn’t prove nearly as effective a showcase for Moore’s skill in this respect as Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” (2003) did. Her picture is a shrewdly-crafted crowd-pleaser that female audiences in particular will embrace. But it’s also curiously thin, never digging as far beneath the surface as it should.
In the tale, based on a non-fiction bestseller by one of the woman’s daughters, Moore plays Evelyn Ryan, long-suffering wife of Kelly (Woody Harrelson), a self-pitying machinist prone to bursts of alcoholic rage. The couple have no fewer than ten children, all well-mannered and nicely behaved, but they have constant difficulty just making ends meet. Happily, Evelyn is a wiz at writing winning contest jingles--a talent that carries the family through numerous crises (and, unhappily, makes Kelly feel his own inadequacy as a provider even more strongly).
As the picture unfolds, it follows a rather repetitive pattern. Some financial problem arises--usually involving Kelly’s drunkenness and penchant for destruction--and Evelyn salvages matters, feeling pain in the process but inevitably bucking up and showing a game face no matter what the temptation to do otherwise. Her almost preternatural optimism and willingness to shoulder the burdens keep the family running even when one or another of the kids gets into trouble (or grows old enough to fly the coop). And her contest-winning ways earn her recognition from a group of like-minded women, headed by the ebullient Dortha Schaefer (Laura Dern), who invite her to join them for a meeting in Indiana. Unfortunately, every time she’s on the verge of doing something for herself--like taking that trip--some new domestic disaster intervenes to prevent her. But she can still revel in such successes as winning the supermarket sweepstakes, in which she speeds around the store loading up a cart with everything she can carry for free. (She takes the opportunity to stock it with all the esoteric items she’s never been able to try before--which again makes Kelly mad, just as the new freezer she won to hold it all had done.) The final crisis that Evelyn faces is, of course, the biggest one of all--involving the possible loss of the family homestead--and the most important contest, which could save everything. (She also eventually gets to meet and bond with Dortha.)
Even Moore’s engaging personality and Anderson’s penchant for sprucing up the narrative with colorful bits of business parodying period-style television commercials can’t keep this cyclical pattern from growing a mite stale over the long haul. And the failure of the script to give Kelly any deeper dimension leaves Harrelson no choice but to play the part at one unvarying note, and thus to become an albatross the film has the carry through its full running-time. The rest of the cast is solid, though Simon Reynolds comes across too snarly as the milkman who regularly quarrels with Evelyn over prompt payment; among the children Ellary Porterfield stands out as the egghead of the group, and Dern brings an abundance of good-will to Dortha. But one might well blanch at the decision to end the picture with scenes of the real Ryan children, now grown up, going through their parents’ house after their deaths; it’s a “Schindler’s List” kind of moment that the feel-good sentimentality of the piece doesn’t really earn. On the technical side the picture is aces across the board, with production design (Edward T. McAvoy), art direction (Andrew Stern) and costumes (Hala Bahmet) that effectively idealize the period and cinematography (by Jonathan Freeman) that captures the detail vibrantly. The aural side isn’t quite as strong, with John Frizzell’s score bouncing about a bit too much.
On balance, “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” isn’t a losing proposition, but it doesn’t earn any major awards, either. It’s just a run-of-the-mill homage to motherhood lifted from the ordinary only by Moore’s natural radiance. And in the end that’s not quite enough.