The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio tells the true-life story of Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore) a late-1950's mom of 10 whose flair for the written word keeps the struggling family from succumbing to financial hardship. Once a burgeoning newspaper reporter Evelyn's life changed when she met Kelly (Woody Harrelson) a smooth-voiced crooner with an easygoing zest for life. But after an auto accident gruesomely impairs his ability to sing Kelly is forced to take a menial job to pay the rent. As the story begins the Ryan family has swelled their small working class home past the breaking point and Kelly's sorry fate has turned him to a drunken louse whose only pleasure is cursing out the Cleveland Indians on the radio. While Kelly spends his meager wages on drink Evelyn uses her literary gift to earn money and prizes from jingle contests. She even wins a freezer big enough to store the meat of three large deer though the only thing she has to put inside is a box of fish sticks. Every time it looks like Evelyn saves the day Kelly is there to mess it up again. He loves his wife and his family--something he tells them every time he screws up--but lurking underneath is a slow-burning jealousy. He wants to provide for his family but can't concede to the fact that Evelyn has been keeping them afloat. It eats away at his 1950's male ego. So in order to boost his pride and standing with the kids--most of whom are too afraid to express their hatred of him--Kelly takes out a loan against their mortgage only to fritter it away on more booze. When the bank seeks foreclosure on the house it's up to Evelyn's jingle for Dr. Pepper to beat out 250 000 other contestants.
Although she has played porn star in Boogie Nights this is the third time we've seen Moore as a 1950's suburban mom--and her talent at it has yet to wear thin. Though similar in time and place Moore always brings something fresh to these characters. In Prize Winner it's her glowing optimism in the face of hard times and an abusive husband that shines through. Harrelson's performance as family foil is a strong one though it's a wonder Evelyn manages to stick with him 1950's sentiment be damned. In one scene when he pushes her down while carrying the milk she begged the offensively rude milkman for Evelyn with hands and knees bloodied looks almost on the verge of leaving. But one look at her kids and she stays--she can't leave them behind not with him. Meanwhile Laura Dern shows up as another suburban mom who heads a group of fellow contesters who have monthly meetings at each other's homes. It's a small thankless role designed to thicken conflict--Evelyn tries for years to find the time to meet the ladies--but Dern plays it with charm and enthusiasm. Most other characters fly by without much thought or concern. Even the kids are indistinguishable from one another though we do get to know Terry aka "Tuff " a little bit the one who grows up to pen the memoir on which the movie is based.
Prize Winner marks Jane Anderson's directing debut (she wrote How to Make an American Quilt among others) and she pulls it off with surprising confidence. Perhaps having Robert Zemeckis onboard as producer might have eased the pressure. Though stylistically there's not much to speak about--it's a fairly straight-forward narrative and shooting style--Anderson does have a knack for period detail particularly plastic hairdos and pastel dresses. There's also not much of plot besides Evelyn saving her family every time Kelly bungles things. There were times I wished she would have shown the guy the door and be done with it. The main selling point is Evelyn and her valiant hope for her family's well-being. But Anderson makes one near-fatal flaw: At then end she gathers together the real-life Ryan children to comb through old photographs and belongings. Then we see the real Terry reading an old letter with Moore sitting beside her as Evelyn. After finishing the letter and giving Terry a kiss on the cheek Evelyn disappears. It's a surreal moment that takes us out of the emotional resonance of the narrative. It crosses boundaries best left alone. We know the movie is about real people but we don't need to actually see them especially when they're plodding around their old house pretending not to act. It's strange and awkward--a rookie mistake one hopes Ms. Anderson won't make again.