Julianne Moore appears in nearly every frame of “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” as Evelyn Ryan, a real-life wife and mother of 10 who kept her family financially afloat by winning jingle contests in the 1950s.
And that’s probably the best thing we can say about the movie.
Because crammed alongside her is a multitude of cutesy visual devices — flying graphics and cutouts of envelopes and appliances, like an Eisenhower-era precursor to “Monty Python” — as well as various children who scamper about interchangeably.
Oftentimes, Moore even appears alongside herself as the narrator — looking into the camera and commenting comically on her own life, standing in the kitchen with herself or hovering over herself at the typewriter composing some catchy rhyme.
The approach is meant to be whimsical and humorous but instead comes off as cloying and self-conscious. And while Evelyn’s resourcefulness and perseverance were inspirational, for sure — and Moore plays her with a healthy mix of wit, pluck and longing — “Prize Winner” too often deifies her.
Which makes sense, since the movie is based on the memoir of the same name by Terry Ryan, the sixth of the family’s 10 children who grew up living in a small house in a small town. Ellary Porterfield, the actress who plays Terry as a teenager — “Tuff,” as she was known then — shows an intelligent, tomboyish charm in her first screen role. She also shares a couple of genuine tearjerker moments with the formidable Moore, who by now has mastered the aesthetic and demeanor of the prim, ’50s housewife following “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours.”
Jane Anderson, who previously wrote the TV movie “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” adapted the screenplay and makes her feature directing debut, which shows little of the bite and insight of her earlier work.
Woody Harrelson, for example, as Evelyn’s useless husband, does two things: rage drunkenly after wasting his paycheck on booze, then whimper apologetically, only to repeat the cycle all over again. The character is drawn so two-dimensionally and is so aggravatingly wimpy, you want to take him by the shoulders and shake him in hopes that a fully formed human being will tumble out.
But there is one lovely scene when Evelyn finally busts out of Defiance, Ohio — after many failed attempts when family crises demanded that she stay home — to meet with a group of ladies in a nearby town who share her love of words and contesting. She blossoms and thrives, albeit briefly. (Laura Dern plays their leader, who contacts Evelyn through a letter, the contents of which she recites while looking in the camera and smiling brightly.)
“Prize Winner” will probably inspire fond, nostalgic memories for moviegoers of a certain age. But it feels too episodic, too repetitive. There’s one contest after another, one inebriated rant after another, one disappointment after another, with Evelyn in the middle, holding it all together with a cheery smile, a snappy quip and a clever solution for every problem that arises.
When she finally does break down, though — in the bedroom, so the kids can’t see — she cries to her husband, “I’m not a saint.”
Could have fooled us, ’cause that’s exactly how the movie depicts her.