THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO — ** 1/2 — Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson; rated PG-13 (profanity).
Julianne Moore plays another harried housewife in "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," but unlike her sad sacks in "The Hours" and "Far From Heaven," Moore's saintly character here wears a smile that isn't painted on.
Watching Moore find the inner life of a woman who finds meaning and purpose — not to mention sustenance for her large brood — in her ability to write snappy jingles is the ultimate reward with this uneven film. Yes, Moore does have her requisite crying scene — even in her comedies, she sobs — but the force of her character's selfless devotion to her family is something to behold.
Jane Anderson (HBO's "Normal") directs and adapts Terry Ryan's greeting-card memoir about growing up dependent on a mother's ingenuity. Moore plays Evelyn Ryan, mother to 10 kids, wife of one alcoholic loser, Kelly (Woody Harrelson).
Moments after we meet Evelyn, she and her family are being evicted from their rented home. When one daughter frets, Harrelson's Kelly consoles her, saying, "Don't worry, sweetheart. Your mom will figure something out."
She does, establishing the movie's plot dynamic. Kelly cashes his paychecks at the liquor store. The milk man comes calling. Evelyn can't pay. Calamity eventually ensues. Then a letter arrives or a phone call comes, notifying Evelyn that she has won one of several dozen contests she enters on a regular basis.
Watching this eventually gets old. You can only turn that frown upside down so many times before it feels like something of a chore. Anderson tries to mix things up, varying the film's tone between satire and pathos, but the playfulness seems forced and not particularly funny.
Like "Far From Heaven," "Prize Winner" does offer its moments of clarity into the chauvinistic world of the 1950s where women are treated with condescension or, worse, contempt. When a priest visits the family after one of Kelly's alcohol-fueled rages, he counsels Evelyn, "It's up to you to make him a good home." She does, she responds. "Well, you'll have to try a little harder," the priest replies.
Watching Evelyn, a woman who could be a Madison Avenue big shot today, grin and bear it isn't exactly fun. But her philosophy of forgiveness in the name of love and happiness is put across by Moore with fierce, focused conviction. She won't be a prize-winner come Oscar time, but it's another notch on her dramatic resume.
"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing images and language. Running time: 99 minutes.