In today's competitive movie-star job market, you can't fault Julianne Moore for protecting her beat.
After giving voice to the secret pain of repressed 1950s housewives in "The Hours" and "Far From Heaven" (and scoring two Oscar nominations in the bargain), Moore returns in first-time director Jane Anderson's whimsical "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," smiling bravely in the face of chauvanism and unfulfillment, playing a woman who quietly rebels against the strict gender role-playing of Eisenhower's America.
And though Moore deconstructs June Cleaver as well as any actress working today, there's also a gnawing lack of complexity in this particular performance. Watching it, one gets the feeling that any number of less talented actresses could have stepped in and done it just as well.
Moore plays Evelyn Ryan, a real-life Midwest homemaker (and mother of 10) who made ends meet by inventing snappy product jingles and submitting them in nationwide contests (a common promotional gimmick in the 1950s). When it came to extolling the spreadability of butter or writing limericks about Dr Pepper cq in 25 words or less, Evelyn was in a league of her own.
Retro-feminist filmmaker Anderson ("When Billie Beat Bobby") amiably covers the most tempestuous decade of Evelyn's life, focusing particular attention on her troubled marriage to Kelly Ryan (Woody Harrelson), a failed musician whose nightly drinking binges (often accompanied by explosive alcoholic outbursts) threaten to ruin the cash-strapped family.
Wearing an oxblood swath of berber on his head and what appears to be a pillow stuffed under his shirt, Harrelson cuts a ridiculous, much too comical figure, more Homer Simpson than Ike Turner.
The unspoken theme in "Prize Winner" is that Evelyn — in a more enlightened time — could have been a Madison Avenue ad whiz instead of a duty-bound woman buried under an avalanche of children and a drunken buffoon of a husband. Point taken.
Still, she's almost too steady. Instead of drama, Evelyn has crisis points. Instead of psychology, she faces the camera and vapidly expounds like an infomercial hostess.
And Moore, instead of exploring new curiosities, is content to stake an old claim.
‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio’
Starring: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, some disturbing images and profanity) Running time: 99 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday at Harkins Camelview in Scottsdale