A review of “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for some violence and adult themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

 

 

Julianne Moore is sure to hear Oscar calling for her captivating performance as 1950s housewife Evelyn Ryan, who raised ten kids on twenty-five words or less.

That’s the nifty prescription for the jingle competitions that Evelyn regularly enters to keep her large family afloat. Husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson) drinks most of his paycheck, leaving little for the mortgage, new shoes or decent food on the table. 

Defying the stringent social conventions of her times Evelyn utilizes wit and resources to become a champion contester, maintaining a happy face win or lose. Always functioning but never flush the Ryan family is a tribute to the concept of close-knit kin. 

Unfortunately Kelly doesn’t see it that way, swallowed by resentment over his wife’s personal success and her upbeat attitude in the face of dire circumstances. His violent tirades paint him as a classic movie villain, an emasculated man-child whose bruised and tiresome ego sucks him into a vortex of rage.

Hard not to admire a woman trapped by circumstance but with a perpetual desire to enjoy every moment to its fullest. Evelyn Ryan is an admirable woman; a special kind of mom who makes each of her ten children feel cherished by giving of herself tirelessly and without complaint.

Moore gets a blue-ribbon for celluloid sainthood but she has help, courtesy of highly-stylized visuals and witty repartee that spoof the 50s Stepford wife with wicked glee. The imagery is classic domestic fantasy – crisp colorful shirtwaists and perfectly coiffed flips, a zippy grocery shopping spree (from a jingle win) and the perky, unyielding support of fellow female contesters the Alpha Daisies (starring a hilarious Laura Dern as daisy oxeye Dortha Schaefer).

Every bit as compelling as the book it was based on, “Prize” is an incontestable winner.