By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Based on the memoir by daughter Terry Ryan, Prize Winner was adapted for the screen by Jane Anderson, who also directed. Andersonís previous experience is telling: In the mid-í80s, she did a writing stint on The Facts of Life; in the í90s, she wrote How to Make an American Quilt and It Could Happen to You. This is wholesome, woman-centric fare, where wives and mothers sew and cook and share hard-won wisdom beneath a halo of honey-colored light. Gooey and gauzy, with a haze of í50s memorabilia that looks as much like a postcard as anything else, Prize Winner certainly fits that bill.
As she did in Far From Heaven and The Hours, Julianne Moore plays a 1950s housewife, a coiffed beauty in cinched dresses whose dreams of a happy family have been dashed on the rocky shores of her husbandís error. In this case, the husband (Kelly, played by Woody Harrelson) is a raging, blubbering alcoholic, the kind of man who can be depended upon only to make a given situation worse. Sometimes he mars things only slightly, adding a twinge of guilt or worry; sometimes, however, his paroxysms of violence send the entire family fleeing for the hills, or at least the yard. Evelyn steers her copious brood (10 children in all) toward the door with the efficiency of the most accomplished mother hen.
She also keeps the family afloat financially. Since Kelly drinks down most of his paycheck, itís up to Evelyn to generate income for milk and food, and she does it by winning jingle contests. A wit with a flair for rhyming couplets, Evelyn submits multiple entries in every contest she can find, using her childrenís names so as to have more chances. (In this if nothing else, Catholicism works to her advantage.) Just in time, cash and prizes sweep in and rescue the family from the brink of miseryóor nearly, since Kellyís ego is too wounded by his wifeís successes to allow them to go unmolested.
But never you mind: Evelyn can handle it. One of the filmís central conceits is that Evelyn is not unhappy with her lot. Her daughter Terry, known as ďTuffĒ and played in the later scenes by the lovely Ellary Porterfield, is the rebel, wondering how her mother can stand to stick around. But, in dulcet tones, Evelyn reminds Tuff that there is plenty to be grateful for and to enjoy. This endless optimism seems part necessity, part bravery and part insanity. Of course, Evelyn canít leave her husband; she has 10 children, no job and no community support. And she does fight back now and then, though mostly under her breath. But surely she could misbehave? Just once? (Weeping privately in her bedroom doesnít count.)
As usual, Moore is valiant, her acting efficient and graceful. Harrelson does all right, though the role is despicable, offering nothing by way of redemption. (The script makes a few gestures toward sympathy, pointing to his dashed hopes for a singing career, but these donít do any good.) Better, Prize Winner has several hilarious, joyful scenes, most notably a shopping spree in which Evelyn is permitted 10 minutes with a cart in a grocery store. (No one can fault her for failing to get the best out of that.) Thereís also a rollicking afternoon in which Evelyn finally meets a group of fellow contesters, adoring pen pals whose numbers include a woman who does all her jingle writing from the cone of her iron lung. The puns are miserable, but the spirit is fun.
In the end, however, thereís not much to take away from The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. The father sucks; the motherís an angel. And? Anderson has boiled the filmís morality down to its blandest bones, in which we are meant to worship the incredible strength of a woman who did the unimaginable, day after day, with a smile on her face. This is wearying, frankly. Worse, the film congeals from dripping sentimentality into emulsified schmaltz when it brings in the actual Ryan family, all 10 children (now in their fifties and sixties), for a final scene. The intentions are clearly honorable, and we certainly wish these people well, but this isnít a memorial service, itís a movie.
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