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DreamWorks presents
The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio (2005)

"Contesting, if you havenít heard of it, was a lucrative way for overworked housewives to use their underused wits. It wasn't that I was any more gifted than your average contester, I was simply more determined."
- Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: April 11, 2006

Stars: Julianne Moore
Other Stars: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan
Director: Jane Anderson

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing images, and language
Run Time: 01h:38m:39s
Release Date: March 14, 2006
UPC: 678149196429
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B- C+B+B+ C

DVD Review

A movie based on a true story shouldn't seem false and contrived, and that's the problem with The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, inspired by the life of homemaker Evelyn Ryan, who kept her large family afloat in the 1950s by entering jingle-writing contests. Based on the memoir by one of Evelyn's 12 children, the film is the directorial debut of playwright Jane Anderson.

Julianne Moore stars as Evelyn, who often speaks directly to the camera in the style of a 1950s television advertiser, explaining how she got into "contesting" as a way to help feed her 12 children. After marrying Kelly (Woody Harrelson), Evelyn's career as a budding journalist got sidetracked by household duties and child after child. But Kelly has problems with alcohol and can't hold a job, and so, at times, the family is in very real danger of losing everything.

But Evelyn discovers she has a talent beyond making dinner and cleaning house—she's a pro at penning 10-word ditties for advertising contests. The prizes are sometimes small (a toaster), and sometimes much larger—on the eve of the family's eviction from a tiny, run-down apartment, an ad man stops by to deliver a chest freezer, a bicycle, and $5,000 cash, enough to put a down payment on a house.

There's a good story here about a woman with brains who puts her unappreciated talents to good use, but Anderson's film is too sentimental to really connect with. Evelyn is written as a sort of long-suffering Stepford wife, putting up a sit-com mom front when dealing with her alcoholic husband or the milkman who likes to spout condescending lectures when she can't pay the bill. I think we're supposed to feel that she was doing what she had to do as a wife and mother, but instead she comes off as emotionally stunted, despite great work by Moore, who finds opportunities to show the cracks in Evelyn's picture perfect veneer. There is great weariness in her voice when she tells her husband she's doesn't expect him to make her happy, she only asks "that you leave me alone when I am."

Harrelson is part of the problem. His character seems to have two moods—drunk and conciliatory, and Harrelson overacts them both. Pathetic and ashamed of the fact the Evelyn is acting as the breadwinner, he doesn't beat his wife, but she is sometimes hurt, once very badly, in the course of one of his drunken fits. The fact that he's quick to apologize and make her a cup of tea did nothing to redeem him in my eyes. There are abrupt tonal shifts between sunny scenes of Evelyn talking to the camera and meeting with fellow "contesters" then watching as Kelly flies off the handle and starts pounding that fancy chest freezer into submission with a frying pan and screaming at his children.

Anderson's script fares a bit better, though it somehow seems to cover to much and too little ground at the same time—the narrative spans decades (brushing over the lives of the Ryans interchangeable children in the process, though it's obvious which one is going to grow up to be the author—the one with lines), but the film keeps hitting the same notes over and over. Evelyn wins a contest, and for a while, things are fine. Then the money starts to run out, and just when things are at their worst, she wins again. Maybe it isn't vintage advertisers Evelyn is aping in her narration, but sit-com re-runs. The ending is especially overstuffed, paying off a sentimental journey that never really took place.

The movie is entertaining, but a little tedious, as cutesy as the premise would suggest. Proof, I suppose, that sometimes real life is just as sappy as a three-hankie Hollywood weepie.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The movie is drenched in nostalgia, and that feeling extends to this warm, detailed transfer. Colors are saturated and natural, blacks are nice and deep and the picture is free of noticeable edge enhancement and artifacting.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: This is a fine, low-key mix with clear dialogue and a nice presentation of the score. Surround action is understandably limited to music cues and atmospheric effects.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English captions, English subtitles with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by director Jane Anderson and actress Julianne Moore
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: The only extras are two commentary tracks, one with director Jane Anderson and the other with star Julianne Moore. Both have their merits, but first I want to commend DreamWorks, because, though it isn't advertised anywhere in the menus, both tracks are actually subtitled in English, French, and Spanish (meaning, along with the subtitles for the film proper, there are nine subtitle tracks). There are still a few studios that can't even manage to include subtitles for the main feature, so the extra effort is notable, even if I personally don't need them (though it did allow me to listen to Anderson's track while reading Moore's—efficient!).

Anyway, both tracks are pretty good. Anderson's is definitely the more substantial of the two. She explains the process of adapting real life experiences into a screenplay and how things were changed around or condensed, talks about why she decided to have Julianne Moore talk to the camera rather than use a voiceover (I like her reasoning, but the effect is still a bit distancing), and tries to justify Woody Harrelson's character as more than a one-note, rote alcoholic (again, I disagree with her, but at least she realizes it might be an issue). Moore takes a more character-driven perspective, offering some comments on Evelyn Ryan's life and explaining how she used that information to create the character. She runs out of things to say eventually, but is generally an interesting speaker (I like how she notes that should couldn't remember the names of the 20 actors playing her children). I think recording the women together would have been a better option, as both tracks have their slow spots.

Extras Grade: C

 

Final Comments

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a quirky, corny tribute to an everyday woman and a bygone era, with another great Julianne Moore performance. It's enjoyable, but too precious and artificial for its own good, as adherent to formula as a few rhyming couplets the real Evelyn Ryan might have tapped out on her typewriter.

 


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