And the Winner Isn't

Columbus Alive | November 3, 2005
Early into The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Woody Harrelson’s sad sack, pot-bellied, alcoholic machinist shakes his head at his family’s financial troubles and tells his wife, “We can’t catch a break.” The irony is that his wife, Julianne Moore playing 1950s supermom and talented “contester” Evelyn Ryan, keeps the two of them and their brood of 10 children alive on little more than luck. She’s a prolific winner of all manner of product-sponsored contests, her clever turns of marketing phrases bringing in a steady stream of groceries and appliances.

His obliviousness is hardly Harrelson’s character’s only flaw. Blowing the milk money on whiskey, violently raging to baseball games on the radio and scaring the bejeezus out of the kids, he’s a pathetic figure emasculated daily by his inability to bring home the bacon while his wife is winning sports cars and washers and driers.

TV alumna Jane Anderson directs and adapts the memoir by Terry Ryan, and she shifts narrating duties from young Terry “Tuff” Ryan to Evelyn, making the gilded cataloging of her many virtues seem a tad vain.

There’s one brief scene, late in the film, where we actually get to see Evelyn’s façade slip, but it’s too little and too late: Prize Winner has long since become an overwrought soap opera about a big family’s struggle to pay the bills between a cartoonishly selfish father and a saintly mother. Tuff is the only child to really make an impression; the rest are a mostly anonymous horde cluttering the background in every frame.

Moore and Harrelson both give fine performances within the limits of the material, and there are certainly potent emotions boiling within the story. Anderson perks it up with Moore’s many audience-addressing narrative moments and some light vintage film strip-like visuals (like one in which Evelyn explains how poetry contests work), but this true story repeatedly rings false. Simultaneously crushingly depressing and relentlessly optimistic, it is both Quaaludes and chicken soup for the soul.

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Founded in 1983, Alive is the Capital City's oldest and only independent alternative and is known for providing a forum for the area's free thinkers. The paper's spirited and original perspective on music, arts and culture distinguish it from the...
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