The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and some disturbing images
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ellary Porterfield, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Simon Reynolds, Nora Dunn
Director: Jane Anderson
Screenplay: Jane Anderson (based on the book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less", by Terry Ryan)
Review published March 6, 2006
Julianne Moore (The Forgotten, Laws of Attraction) returns to a familiar role, practically the antithesis of the morose character she portrayed in Far From Heaven, in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, where the woman of the 1950s she plays is similarly trapped in a touchy existence with a spouse that doesn't quite make her happy, but this time, she puts her best face on about her lot in life and finds a way to make the best of things. It's based on a true story, as chronicled in the biographical memoirs by one of the ten children of Evelyn Ryan, written and directed by Jane Anderson, who has thus far made a career making strong films about women, with such notable entries as Normal, When Billie Beat Bobbie, and one of the segments in If These Walls Could Talk 2. This marks her first big screen directorial stint, but it's a good one.
Evelyn Ryan and her alcoholic hubby, Kelly (Harrelson, North Country), were a poor family living in a working-class neighborhood. Kelly turned to alcohol when he lost his promising career as a singer in a freak accident, leaving him little choice but to work in a menial job as a machinist while Evelyn looked after the ten kids at home. Kelly wasn't good with money, spending it on his drinking before the needs of the home, so to supplement some income, as well as to pass the time, Evelyn would enter contests, especially those that would ask for a new catchphrase, jingle, or ditty about a product. She is good at it, winning her share of cash and prizes against tens of thousands of other contestants. However, what will happen if Evelyn's luck runs out, and they are forced into a situation where the bills can't be paid?
Moore carries the movie to success, thanks to her wholly likeable and sympathetic character portrayal, as she guides us through the odyssey that is her life in a colorful and meaningful way. It exposes the role of women in suburbia as living an idyllic existence on television, content in their subservient role, but the movie itself paints a bleaker picture, with sadness underneath the smiles, as they have the intelligence to succeed, but the social climate didn't really allow such "nonsense". A woman's role is in the home, the husband is the head of the household for better or worse, and that's just the way it has to be.
While Moore is the film's major asset, Anderson peppers up the story with some choice social commentary in a not-too-blatant fashion. The casting of Woody Harrelson is a bit of a quandary, as he never really owns the role of alcoholic father and husband in a truly convincing way, and doesn't quite match up well with the powerful performance by Moore. It's not a bad performance from Harrelson, but it feels more like a caricature portrayal than a well-rounded persona. A quality set of young actors fill in the children's roles well, and even the real-life Ryan kids make an appearance in the movie's end, which brings us up to speed on what happened to the family after the main events of the story depicted in the film.
If I were to recommend this film to anyone, it would primarily be to those that appreciate the work of Julianne Moore, who is a real marvel of understated emotions here, showing an inner strength that gets her though the most trying of times, even though she is resolved to her lesser place as a woman in 1950s society. In a way, it could have all seemed so tragic, which the author also calls into question in a poignant moment later in the film, but like Evelyn's character would have it, she is determined to live a rich and rewarding life, despite the trials and tribulations she must endure. In the end, it reaches for your heartstrings in an obvious way, but to its credit, it manages to pull them with consummate success.
©2006 Vince Leo