`Prize Winner' is an also-ran

Review C+

October 28, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In a career filled with wonderful performances, Julianne Moore gives what may be her best in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, as a 1950s housewife and mother who raises a family on the strength of her ability to write catchy advertising jingles that win contests.

What makes Moore's performance so remarkable is that she has to play an idealized mother, warm, nurturing, patient, smart, perfect in every way imaginable - especially in comparison to her worthless husband (Woody Harrelson), who spends the entire movie apologizing for his shortcomings, except when he's drunk or abusive. Moore's is a part that could easily devolve into parody, in the eyes of either the actor (who could spend all her time winking at the audience) or the audience, eyes rolling at the character's relentless piety.

Moore doesn't allow either reaction. Her Evelyn Ryan seems perfect to everyone but herself; Moore allows the occasional hint of self-doubt to surface, lets us feel the character struggling to maintain her idealized facade. Evelyn's life motto may involve making lemonade out of lemons, but Moore makes us empathize with the inner pain she must feel (and suppress) for her Little Mary Sunshine act to work.

Based on writer Terry Ryan's memoirs of her own mother, Prize Winner depends too much on Evelyn's irrepressible virtue. In one of the movie's most telling moments, a scene from the old TV show Queen for a Day is shown. Maudlin in the extreme, Queen asked women to open up before a national TV audience and act as pitiful as possible. If the story they told was sad enough, they'd win something - maybe a blender, or a toaster oven.

Director Jane Anderson sees her subject as little more than a game-show contestant. One suspects the real Evelyn Ryan deserved far better.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

(DreamWorks)

Starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson.

Directed by Jane Anderson.

Rated PG-13.

Time 99 minutes.

Review C+

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