It's always hard to pan an earnest film, especially one by a first-time director. And The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, a plucky striver if ever there was one, can't find a single cynical note on the scale. Essentially a hagiography in praise of Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), a woman who kept her family of twelve fed and clothed by winning jingle contests, the film lays its slender plot at her feet, offering her effusive thanks in every scene. Indeed, Ryan seems to have been a hero but the film is just no good.
Based on the memoir by daughter Terry Ryan, Prize Winner was adapted for the screen by Jane Anderson, who also directed. Anderson's previous experience is telling: In the mid-'80s, she did a writing stint on The Facts of Life; in the '90s, she wrote How to Make an American Quilt and It Could Happen to You. This is wholesome, woman-centric fare, where wives and mothers sew and cook and share hard-won wisdom beneath a halo of honey-colored light. Gooey and gauzy, with a haze of '50s memorabilia that looks as much like a postcard as anything else, Prize Winner certainly fits that bill.
As she did in Far From Heaven and The Hours, Julianne Moore plays a 1950s housewife, a coiffed beauty in cinched dresses whose dreams of a happy family have been dashed on the rocky shores of her husband's error. In this case, the husband (Kelly, played by Woody Harrelson) is a raging, blubbering alcoholic, the kind of man who can be depended upon only to make a given situation worse. Sometimes he mars things only slightly, adding a twinge of guilt or worry; sometimes, however, his paroxysms of violence send the entire family fleeing for the hills, or at least the yard. Evelyn steers her copious brood (ten children in all) toward the door with the efficiency of the most accomplished mother hen.
She also keeps the family afloat financially. Since Kelly drinks down most of his paycheck, it's up to Evelyn to generate income for milk and food, and she does it by winning jingle contests. A wit with a flair for rhyming couplets, Evelyn submits multiple entries in every contest she can find, using her children's names so as to have more chances. (In this if nothing else, Catholicism works to her advantage.) Just in time, cash and prizes sweep in and rescue the family from the brink of misery or nearly, since Kelly's ego is too wounded by his wife's successes to allow them to go unmolested.
But never you mind: Evelyn can handle it. One of the film's central conceits is that Evelyn is not unhappy with her lot. Her daughter Terry, known as "Tuff" and played in the later scenes by the lovely Ellary Porterfield, is the rebel, wondering how her mother can stand to stick around. But, in dulcet tones, Evelyn reminds Tuff that there is plenty to be grateful for and to enjoy. This endless optimism seems part necessity, part bravery and part insanity. Of course, Evelyn can't leave her husband; she has ten children, no job and no community support. And she does fight back now and then, though mostly under her breath. But surely she could misbehave? Just once? (Weeping privately in her bedroom doesn't count.)
As usual, Moore is valiant, her acting efficient and graceful. Harrelson does all right, though the role is despicable, offering nothing by way of redemption. (The script makes a few gestures toward sympathy, pointing to his dashed hopes for a singing career, but these don't do any good.) Better, Prize Winner has several hilarious, joyful scenes, most notably a shopping spree in which Evelyn is permitted ten minutes with a cart in a grocery store. (No one can fault her for failing to get the best out of that.) There's also a rollicking afternoon in which Evelyn finally meets a group of fellow contesters, adoring pen pals whose numbers include a woman who does all her jingle writing from the cone of her iron lung. The puns are miserable, but the spirit is fun.
In the end, however, there's not much to take away from The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. The father sucks; the mother's an angel. And? Anderson has boiled the film's morality down to its blandest bones, in which we are meant to worship the incredible strength of a woman who did the unimaginable, day after day, with a smile on her face. This is wearying, frankly. Worse, the film congeals from dripping sentimentality into emulsified schmaltz when it brings in the actual Ryan family, all ten children (now in their fifties and sixties), for a final scene. The intentions are clearly honorable, and we certainly wish these people well, but this isn't a memorial service, it's a movie.