The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

"Very Good"

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio Review


Someone should tell Julianne Moore that this isn't how box office careers are made. If you want to play the same character over and over, have it be a model the multiplex masses can warm up to. Vince Vaughn has taken the smartass route; Ben Stiller the imbecile track. Who's going to connect with 1950s housewives? Not the key demographics, certainly.

At the same time, when Moore gives as brilliant performance as she does in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, who should stop her? Moore is in every scene in this true, against-all-odds story about a woman whose penchant for winning contests keeps her family financially afloat. The teary story combined with Moore's constant presence could lead to self-indulgent tedium. It doesn't for one simple reason: Julianne Moore becomes Evelyn Ryan, not the other way around.

Evelyn Ryan is what some would call an American original. The movie, based on Evelyn's daughter Terry's book, focuses mostly on the years 1956 through 1963, when the elder Ryan kept a family of 12 fed and in a home through the prizes she got by winning commercial jingle contests. It's a good thing she did, as her husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson), is a self-pitying, rage-a-holic who drinks away his machinist's salary, leaving Evelyn the pressure of winning contests so the bank and the milkman get paid on time.

For Evelyn, the contests are a good way to flex her creative muscles, something that could be hard to do as a full-time housewife. Kelly isn't so lucky, as a car accident robbed him of a singing career. Evelyn is willing to put up with him, knowing that "he lost his voice, while I kept mine." Harrelson plays the role of a terminal loser perfectly: the mood swings, the pettiness, the meek apologies (issued in cups of tea to Evelyn). Essentially, Kelly is a pot-bellied kid Evelyn must pay special attention to.

As good as Harrelson is here, the character serves as a major distraction to the story only because we're never given a reason as to what makes Kelly redeemable. Director/writer Jane Anderson does a lot of things well in Prize Winner -- setting up obstacles, establishing Evelyn's balance as mother and disappointed wife, explaining how the contests work using Evelyn as a guide -- but she fails to make the confrontations with Kelly and his family into anything more than just repeated flashes of anger. Evelyn absorbs the punishment, but it feels like a constant reminder of something we already know. Plus, you're left with this nagging thought: Couldn't she have done a lot better than this knob?

That question is a credit to Moore, who even as the movie slowly sinks into the schmaltz swamp -- and gets there when the real-life Terry Ryan appears with her cinematic mom -- manages to pull the movie onto firmer ground. Moore does it through small gestures, like trying caviar for the first time or coming up with a jingle for a sandwich. How many actresses could beg the milkman for credit, but come out more dignified in the end? You see that smile, that eager twitching of the pen, and you know Evelyn Ryan is more than a housewife, more than a tragic figure in a hardship story. She's a human being. And in doing that, Moore delivers one of the best performances of 2005.

Not street legal.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 99 mins

In Theaters: Friday 1st June 2007

Box Office USA: $0.4M

Distributed by: Dreamworks Distribution LLC

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 47 Rotten: 35

IMDB: 7.3 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Evelyn Ryan, as Kelly Ryan, as Dortha Schaefer, as Bruce Ryan, Ellary Porterfield as Tuff Ryan, as Ray the Milkman, Robert Clark as Dick Ryan

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