Before it was a movie, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio was a bestselling book, Terry Ryan’s memoir of growing up in a large (10 kids!) Catholic family in the 1950s and ’60s with an alcoholic father and a mother who supplemented his inadequate income — what was left over after the liquor bills — by entering contests to supply advertising slogans and jingles for household products. The book is slight but engaging, an evocation of a time that was both simpler and less enlightened, when a woman of great energy and ingenuity could do little more with her abilities than eke out a meager existence for her family by applying her writing skills to advertising doggerel. It’s a very American story; there’s something in us — something both masochistic and misogynistic — that makes us respond more to this kind of barely-triumphing-over-adversity story than we would to one of a woman in the same period who overcame societal obstacles to achieve great material success. We like to see the underdog win out, but not too much.
The book would seem an ideal candidate for film adaptation; it’s even structured like a movie, gradually setting up the characterizations of the principles while building to a series of predictable, but still exciting, climaxes. So when I found out that DreamWorks hadn’t planned a wide release of the film, I smelled something fishy. Here they had a “family-friendly” story about “the triumph of the human spirit,” based on a popular book with a memorable title, and a star in the lead, yet they were trickling it into art-house theaters a few at a time as though it were a 16mm Czech film about a sympathetic child murderer. What was wrong with it? Well, I can tell you in two words: Woody Harrelson.
Harrelson plays Kelly Ryan, husband to the title character, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), but the way the story has been rejiggered for the movie, it’s he who dominates. It seems almost pointless to complain that there’s too much Woody Harrelson — when has any Woody Harrelson not been too much? — but the way writer/director Jane Anderson has handed the movie over to him destroys just about everything that works in the book. The focus is shifted from Evelyn’s creativity, wit, motherly devotion, and indomitable joie de vivre to her relationship with her no-account husband, begging the question why a woman who was so much stronger and smarter than her husband didn’t simply put her foot down and start running the household. (We understand, of course, that it wasn’t really possible for Evelyn to leave him, as she could never have supported those 10 children on her own, but this other option keeps nagging at us. Kelly isn’t depicted as being a physical threat to Evelyn, except in his clumsiness, and she certainly outmatches him in smarts. As Kelly, Harrelson seems even more than usual like a halfwit.)
I doubt the film would have worked with any actor in the Kelly Ryan role, but Harrelson is just about the worst choice imaginable. Outfitted with a reasonably convincing padded beer gut and a ridiculously unconvincing wig, he seems to be doing what so many stars of superhero movies say they do — he lets the costume do the acting. Everything about the performance is outsized and attention-grabbing, from the violent outbursts to the sudden tears as pride and shame mix each time Evelyn bails the family out of a jam with a well-timed prize. They’ve stuffed Harrelson’s jaw with something — perhaps peanut butter to make him open and close his mouth? — so that he distantly recalls Brando in The Godfather, but that small, distracting echo of a great performance is about as close to real acting as he gets. This costume has not studied the Method.
Harrelson could not be a worse match for Moore, whose style is so unhistrionic. His performance demands our attention, while hers, keyed to a much wider but more subtle emotional range, fairly wilts in its absence. We want to watch her, and we’re rewarded when we do, but it’s damned hard to concentrate when so often Harrelson is literally thrashing around in the background of her scenes, screaming epithets at the transistor radio and contemptuously bashing up her prizes.
One wonders what Anderson meant the film to be, as she almost certainly didn’t plan on handing it over to Harrelson the way she has. Was there studio interference that garbled her intentions? There are vestigial traces of other directions she might have taken. When Moore shouts at Harrelson, “I am not a saint!” the movie almost seems to be responding to the book’s depiction of Evelyn as a paragon of motherhood who wants nothing more in life than her children’s happiness. Did Anderson start off with intentions of debunking a myth? The story could have stood it; though I found parts of the book terribly moving — I’m a sucker for self-sacrificing moms — it felt sanitized, Erma-Bombecked in the way it downplayed family problems in favor of cute anecdotes. The movie doesn’t do that, but it still feels false, even more so than the book. It condescends to its period, making the 1950s feel more distant than they are and kitschily, creepily unreal. Some of the devices go right back to the silent era, like the evil milkman who lacks only a handlebar mustache to twirl or the montage that’s sped up Mack Sennett-style for supposedly comic effect. Evelyn narrates the film, talking directly to the camera in chipper “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should!”-style monologues and a group of singing-dancing bouffanted women appear at regular intervals to help move things along. This, apparently, is intended as ironic commentary on the superficial facades of the ’50s, but does anyone need it? Have we not been preached at enough about the evils of Eisenhower-era social homogeneity — often in movies featuring Julianne Moore?
Anderson clearly wants to make a feminist statement about those times — she includes, gratuitously, a TV showing a Miss America contestant explain that women are too emotional to be president — but the execution is muddled. We see right away that Evelyn questions male hegemony, at least internally, but she doesn’t challenge it, though she seems to have the spirit and self-confidence necessary to do so. Is she a victim of her times, does she make herself a victim by failing to stand up and demand better than what she gets, or is she ultimately a success because she keeps her home and family together despite the odds and raises 10 kids who almost all go on to college and good careers? The movie doesn’t have a point of view on this central question or, rather, it has all three. Anderson seems to have too much empathy with Evelyn to excoriate her for not being a trailblazer, but she’s also too much a woman of her own times to completely let Evelyn off the hook. She makes her life harder and less rewarding than it was depicted in the book, making Kelly more violent and cruel and taking away a happy family Christmas and a prize-package trip to New York that Evelyn loved — she has a family crisis intervene so that Evelyn must remain in Defiance (but not so much in defiance of anything). She exchanges the book’s too-sunny attitude for one that’s all doom and gloom, diminishing Evelyn’s real accomplishments and making her obstacles melodramatic and overexplicit. Watching Evelyn go through so much unrelieved suffering, I couldn’t help wishing that, like Moore’s housewife character in The Hours, she’d get the hell out of there and go be a lesbian in Canada. Anything beats being married to Woody Harrelson.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()