“I’m not a saint,” says Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), the 1950s housewife with a line and a solution for every problem that arises in her extremely large family, replete with a drunkard loser husband (Woody Harrelson) and her 10 children. But in Jane Anderson’s woefully uneven new film, she is exactly that, so when Moore is finally allowed to deliver such a line, you don’t exactly buy it. One more ’50s housewife role for Moore and a biopic on Betty Crocker can’t be too far behind, but she is the best thing about Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by a country mile. Playing Evelyn, a tower of strength who supports the clan by winning jingle-writing contests that allow her family food and shelter, Moore gives the role her customary intelligence. Even arriving three years after Far from Heaven and The Hours, she is resourceful enough to let you temporarily forget that fact, and even finds a few new colors in her acting palette. After her miserable stab at comedy in the execrable Laws of Attraction, it’s a surprise to see Moore so comfortable in lighter moments here, but it never upstages her sturdy performance. As in her best work, you can always feel something bubbling beneath the surface. If only the writer-director scraped beneath that surface. Anderson penned the scathing, sensational TV movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom and more recently, HBO’s soapy, noxious gender identity melodrama Normal, and Prize Winner often plays like an uneasy mix of the two. Anderson clearly wants to have her cake and eat it too, as playful sequences of Moore satirically narrating the film (often with direct-camera address) are joined with Nora Ephron-style suds that go completely against the grain of her initial approach. It leads to a rather schizo piece of filmmaking that is too busy to ever be dull, but the only Prize in the foreseen future for it might be the boob tube.
- Jane Anderson
- Jane Anderson
- Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Simon Reynolds
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