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Photograph by Michael Gibson

Group Hug, Everyone: Julianne Moore (center) plays an overachieving mom in 'The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.'

Jingles Jangle

Julianne Moore plays a '50s housewife on a winning streak in Defiance, Ohio

By Richard von Busack

JULIANNE MOORE'S portrayals of housewives stuck in the tightest of 1950s straightjackets are scarifying. Only Japanese actresses are better at signaling the fury inside a woman through composure, gentle gestures and a level, soft voice. Unfortunately, the third time around (after The Hours and Far From Heaven), the act decays into mannerism. Maybe she should take the (white) gloves off.

Moore stars in the comedy-drama The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, based on San Franciscan Terry Ryan's memoir of her enormous Catholic family, raised some 60 miles outside of Toledo. Evelyn Ryan (Moore) is a housewife juggling 10 children who has an avocation to write jingles and contest entries. She's so good at it that she provides for her family with her winnings. She succeeds so much that her husband—a bitter machinist named Kelly (Woody Harrelson)—begins to feel threatened as a man. And when the whiskey comes out, he goes on tirades. As the children grow up and leave, Kelly's improvidence keeps the family on the edge of hardship. When Evelyn meets with some other ladies in her line of work (Laura Dern plays a prize winner of Indiana) the friction worsens in the family.

Ryan's book paints a saintly portrait of a mother who always keeps her calm. By contrast, Moore knows that she is acting in the story of a masked woman; she never lets her feelings out except for one flash of disgust, when she's covered with her own blood. She is always a lady, even in the kind of marriage—says the narrator—the husband needs to make amends for.

In the thankless part of the drunken, roaring father, Harrelson also seems inorganic, but he is doing more of a shtick than Moore is. There are scenes when a better title would be The Rat Bastard Drunken Father of Defiance, Ohio. Harrelson's range from agro drunk to little-boy weakling is the same range most of the emasculated dads in sitcoms have.

The director is Jane Anderson, writer of well-regarded TV movies like The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. The film's semicomic title shows the sitcom effect on this often tragic, harrowing story. The episodes are connected with magical-realist interludes, reflecting the often bizarrely pixieish television commercials of the era. It's like a load of chalky nondairy creamer dumped into some strong hot coffee.

This is a well-produced movie, with plenty of authentic props, scrupulous attentions to costumes and no obvious anachronisms. On the level of production design, it's one of the most evocative films on the era that I've seen, and it will get to those who lived through the 1950s and early 1960s, even if that period is mostly just an early memory. At the same time, the twinkly touches are off-putting. It's a hell of a thing to see your past turned into an amusement park.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (PG-13; 99 min.), directed and written by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Terry Ryan, photographed by Jonathan Freeman and starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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