The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Julianne Moore and Laura Dern have varying degrees of '50s enjoyment.

(2005) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Simon Reynolds, Monte Gagne, Robert Clark. Directed by Jane Anderson

Raising a family is never an easy proposition, even under the most ideal of circumstances. Raising a family of ten children when the father is an alcoholic who spends most of what little he brings home from the machine shop on booze is nigh near impossible.

Somehow, however, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) does just that. A promising journalist, she left her career to wed aspiring crooner Kelly Ryan (Harrelson) and like a good Irish Catholic, proceeds to pump out a wagonload of kids while putting her own career on hold. Unfortunately for Kelly, a tragic traffic accident ends his singing career and sticks him in the Ford machine shop in Defiance, Ohio. Always partial to liquor to begin with, he begins to really get cozy with the bottle.

With bills due, the mortgage past due and the kids needing one thing or another, Evelyn puts her writing skills to use by entering the tremendously popular (and profitable) jingle contests that were a staple of the ‘50s, when this movie is set. She’s good enough to win appliances, shopping sprees, cars, bikes, vacations, plants, toys and yes, cash. She also manages to keep a positive outlook despite Kelly’s need to lash out and her own children’s need to find themselves. She yearns for things beyond the city limits of Defiance and makes a connection with other contesters, as she calls them, led by the affable Dortha (Dern). Denied even the comfort of friends, she becomes the rock of the Ryan household, and her older kids know it, even as their father continues to make horrible mistakes one after another.

Based on a true story (written by Evelyn’s real-life daughter Terry, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie), this is a nice portrait not only of a time and place, but a look a poverty in America, a subject that we rarely turn our attention to. It is also a peep into the role of women in the household, and while it is certainly more a view of the place of women in the 1950s, it resonates to the modern woman (and the modern man as well).

Told with a spiffy voice over by Moore and some nicely done asides that advance the story from one trauma to the next, Anderson made her feature debut with this after years in television. She uses her skills from the small screen nicely here, further giving this a kind of ‘50s “All’s well in America as long as the TV is working” gloss. In fact, if there is a problem with her work, it is that sometimes it seems a bit too small screen for the silver screen, if you get my drift.

Moore, who has four Oscar nominations to her credit, does a very nice job with this. Having to play a saint who is forced to turn a blind eye to the injustice of her situation while nonetheless aware of its inequities, she manages to convey her frustration that she hid carefully from her children and even from her husband. Harrelson tones down some of the acting excesses that took him from A-lister ten years ago to the B-list where he is now. He does some of his best work since The People vs. Larry Flynt, playing Kelly as a guy helpless to his own inadequacies, wanting to do the right thing but always, tragically, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

While this was sadly overlooked during its late-2005 run, there is a lot to like here. The attitudes of the 50s male towards women, particularly when the woman you love is turning out to be a better breadwinner than yourself, are the kinds of feelings men grapple with today a half-century later. While most of the Ryan offspring wound up as faceless, being too numerous to keep track of as they aged during the course of the film, nonetheless I found this exceedingly entertaining. You may not remember the Ryan children when all is said and done, but you will certainly remember their parents.

REASONS TO RENT: Nice evocation of the ‘50s. Strong performances by Moore and Harrelson. Storytelling is quirky and fun.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many kids who tend to all blend together. Some of the vignettes seemed to be “same stuff different day” without offering much more than the vignette before it.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some mild language concerns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the dresses worn by Julianne Moore dresses that actually belonged to Evelyn Ryan, whose daughter Betty saved them and offered to the film for use.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PRFORMANCE: $689,028 on a $12M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paris