Julianne Moore is back in a permanent wave and cardigans for Jane Anderson's adaptation of Terry Ryan's bestselling memoir, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," which caps Moore's long-suffering 1950s housewife trilogy with a smiley face and a proffered hanky.
Based on the true story of a housewife who kept her family in fish sticks by writing prizewinning advertising jingles while her machinist husband blew the milk money on whiskey and beer, "Prize Winner" picks up with Evelyn Ryan after the birth of her 10th child, just before she wins a washer and dryer, a freezer and $5,000 for a down payment on a house. The freezer turns out to play a major role in the movie, as Evelyn fills it with comestible prizes while husband Kelly alternately pummels it and tosses steaks out the back door.
In a disconcerting rug and black-rimmed glasses, Woody Harrelson cuts a pathetic figure as a man who takes his anger at his wife's emasculating copywriting skills out on the appliances. But despite this, and the fact that Kelly and Evelyn call each other "mother" and "dad" (endearments not cute in any decade), Anderson handles their relationship with tongs. Evelyn is no luckier in marriage than her counterparts in "The Hours" or "Far From Heaven," but she dutifully insists on making lemonade from the lemons life pelts her with. There's a lesson to be extracted here — something about making the best out of less-than-optimal circumstances. But considering Evelyn's feudal relationship to her drunken lord of a husband, it would probably require one of those old-fashioned citrus presses you can get at Restoration Hardware for the price of a 1959 mortgage payment. There's a price to pay for all that nostalgia.
Considering how closely Anderson worked with the book's author, child No. 6, Terry "Tuff" Ryan, it isn't surprising that the on-screen Evelyn submits to her trials with the patience of a saint. She's a reflection of the admiration of her loving children, which probably accounts for why so much of the story concerns what's for dinner. The director feigns some distance from the subject by applying the occasional postmodern styling, such as kitschy '50s-style animations, and Moore-as-narrator sauntering into scenes in which she's already present as a character. (There's something creepy about the fond, arm-over-the-shoulder bonhomie the actress displays for herself as the protagonist.)
But it's one thing to write a loving ode to your mother; another to direct an ode to an ode. For all its aggressive chirpiness — which reaches operatic heights when Evelyn meets her soul mates in a jingle-writing group of housewives called the "Affadaisies," headed by a bubbly Laura Dern — "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" leaves a bitter little aftertaste that isn't rinsed away by Anderson's decision to include a scene of "the real Ryan children" (a title helpfully informs) rummaging through their late mom's things and making bassett eyes at her typewriter. It's probably safe to say that we've had our fill of stories about little ladies in twin-sets making the most of it — and considering those days are practically upon us again, it seems about time to start waxing weepy about those brave, plucky moms who tacked chore-wheels to the fridge before heading out to barbecue their bras. Talk about days gone by.
'The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing images and language.
Times guidelines: Includes some scenes of domestic mayhem and verbal abuse.
DreamWorks Pictures and Revolution Studios present an Imagemovers production. Written and directed by Jane Anderson. Based on the memoir "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" by Terry Ryan. Produced by Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis. Executive producer Marty Ewing. Director of photography Jonathan Freeman. Production designer Edward T. McAvoy. Editor Robert Dalva. Costume designer Hala Bahmet. Music by John Frizzell. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.