MOVIE REVIEW

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

In modern times, when the word “housewife” has become synonymous with “desperate,” the image of an unconditionally happy ’50s homemaker is a hard act to swallow. The generational gap is further widened when we discover that the housewife’s outlet is not in her teenage gardener, but in composing TV ad jingles.

Based on the best-selling memoir by Terry Ryan, “Prize Winner” recounts the story of Ryan’s mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), who raised and financially supported 10 children by winning commercial song-writing contests, as her alcoholic husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson) drank away his wages. While the feat in itself is inspiring, it is difficult to feel inspired by a story full of characters who represent actual individuals, but come off as implausible devices.

Despite Moore’s impressive versatility as an actress (she exudes maternal competence here as confidently as she exudes sexuality in “Boogie Nights”), her Evelyn is, as her husband points out, “just too damn happy.” The shock she displays upon winning a bicycle is almost as affected as the unfazed façade she puts on for her kids when Kelly tears into one of his asinine drunken outbursts. Thus, by the time Evelyn finally breaks down towards the film’s end, it is hard to believe her assertion that she actually is “human.”

While Evelyn may be too one-dimensional, this is more than can be said of the children characters. The way in which screenwriter and director Jane Anderson constantly positions the faceless (and mostly nameless) flock around and generally below Evelyn succeeds at reinforcing their adoration of her, but fails to give any sense of a sorely lacking intimacy between them. And though she squeezes in a few incongruous moments of one-on-one, mother-child interaction, they cannot be appreciated when the children themselves are awkwardly underdeveloped. Terry, or “Tuff” as they call her, is the only one with any defining personality trait­—she’s the “wonderfully feisty” one, as her nickname implies, and all of her dialogue goes to proving it, sassing her father with lines like “how ‘bout you don’t spend so much at the liquor store?”

As it turns out, Kelly is really just another one of Evelyn’s children —in the one scene where they are shown in bed together, he nuzzles his head against her shoulder like a puppy, an uncomfortable image considering they have had 10 kids together—and it is unclear whether he is more jealous of his wife’s success or the attention she gives to the kids (he is usually depicted sulking alone in the background). But then again, the film is not meant to be a love story; at one point Evelyn asserts to her husband, “I don’t need you to make me happy, I just need you to leave me alone when I am.”

Ironically, Anderson’s most potent visuals are ones that remind us of Kelly’s immaturity and alcoholism. The camera frequently lingers over the massive prize ice box that Kelly gashes during a drunken fury. Later, a shot soaks in Evelyn’s blood as it swirls with spilt milk after Kelly drunkenly causes her to fall while carrying milk bottles purchased with her scraped-together earnings.

While “Prize Winner” is meant to be a feel-good film about a burdened housewife who uses ingenuity and foolhardy hopefulness to overcome the barriers of a man’s world, her unresolved domestic disputes and the unsympathetic characters fail to make Evelyn’s struggle seem worthwhile. In the end, the die-hard optimism of “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” seems more artificial than those Desperate Housewives’ breasts.

—Staff writer Nina L. Vizcarrondo can be reached at nvizcarr@fas.harvard.edu