Thursday, October 13, 2005

Evelyn Ryan can write a prize-winning jingle for any occasion — when one of her 10 kids needs a bike, to pay the mortgage or should her ne’er-do-well husband drink their savings away.

She’s beyond being one tough cookie. She’s a saint who never runs out of good cheer.

Sound fictional? “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” is a true tale of an Eisenhower-era housewife who spun gold from her notebook of rhymes.

Did we mention she’s the mother of 10?

But writer/director Jane Anderson sprinkles so much confectioner’s sugar over Evelyn’s story that her personal triumphs come off as half-baked.

Thank heavens for Julianne Moore, an actress normally forced to wail her way through her dramatic roles in movies like “The Forgotten” (2004) and “Magnolia” (1999). She’s a near revelation here as Evelyn, granting her the steely resolve the real Evelyn Ryan deserves.

Miss Moore’s Evelyn spends her time making excuses for her pathetic husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson) and tidying up after her adorable brood.

In between, she submits jingles to commercial contests. Back in the 1950s, we’re told, housewives could tuck away a tidy sum by helping companies sell their cleaners, soft drinks and pastries.

Whenever a crisis strikes the Ryan household, a check arrives on their doorstep to save the day.

Usually, the problems stem from Kelly’s overworked liver. He never hits Evelyn or their children when drunk, but he’s a whiz at smashing dishes and letting his insecurities spoil their rare celebrations.

How Evelyn looks past Kelly’s barbarism while taking care of everyone’s needs save her own passes for the film’s narrative.

Miss Anderson, best known for penning the cable pic “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” takes fanciful license with “Prize.” Miss Moore narrates the initial scenes, sometimes standing next to herself — as Evelyn — to chirpily invite us into the story. Somehow, the device works, as do a few of the jauntier tricks like dropping in mini-musical numbers based on her jingles.

The gimmicks only remind us that Miss Anderson’s film needs such props. Between the cloyingly cute kids and the manufactured dramas, there’s little pushing us through Evelyn’s life beyond a steadily emptying nest.

Mr. Harrelson is all wrong as Evelyn’s brutish husband: His innate kindness, what defined his role in TV’s “Cheers,” keeps bubbling through the artifice. Yet his role isn’t so different than Miss Moore’s. Each is as one dimensional as the other. Miss Moore simply runs rings around the simple-minded script.

“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” is based on a book written by one of Evelyn’s 10 children. A daughter can be excused for glossing over her mother’s dark side, but Miss Anderson should have given us a matriarch with a richer inner life.


TITLE: “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”

RATING: PG-13 (Coarse language and some disturbing images)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jane Anderson from the book by Terry Ryan. Produced by Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes



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