You have to think Julianne Moore herself chuckled before taking on another role as a 1950s housewife, much less, so narrow and outlandish a premise as The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio. Thing is, it’s all true: Prizewinner is based on the story of a mother who, as Terry Ryan’s original book put it, “raised 10 kids on 25 words or less.” Burdened with a drunken meathead for a husband (Woody Harrelson), Evelyn Ryan (Moore) supports the family by winning corporate contests that offer prizes for snappy jingles.
The material seems a good match for Jane Anderson, whose script for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993) inaugurated HBO as a place for fresh content. But Anderson’s enthusiasm for the trappings of the period and the antic consumerism of the contests results in a perpetual montage feel that stifles actors and drama alike.
The family’s feast-or-famine existence has an ebb-and-flow feel already, paralleled (and caused) by the father’s binges. Moore does excel at evoking the jujitsu and optimism required of a housewife in firmly patriarchal territory. When she calls the cops after one of Dad’s rages, they end up talking baseball. Harrelson, meanwhile, plays the childlike loser that his macho screen personas might actually turn out to be.
But after about half the movie, the drama hasn’t the foundation or chemistry to continue. By the time Evelyn meets up with other housewife jingle mavens, the scenes are disappointingly shallow. Last minute sentimental mop-up with the future-novelist daughter who will write the story we are watching leaves the story terminally soggy.
Opens September 30th