(director/writer: Jane Anderson; screenwriter: based on the memoir “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less” by Terry Ryan; cinematographer: Jonathan Freeman; editor: Robert Dalva; music: John Frizzell; cast: Julianne Moore (Evelyn Ryan), Woody Harrelson (Kelly Ryan), Laura Dern (Dortha), Ellary Porterfield (Tuff Ryan); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Jack Rapke/Steve Starkey/Robert Zemeckis; DreamWorks SKG; 2005)
“The script just dulls out.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This bittersweet comedy drama derived from a true story of one woman’s effort to keep her family afloat under difficult circumstances is directed and written by Jane Anderson, in her movie directorial debut. It’s based on the memoir “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less” by Terry Ryan.

Julianne Moore plays with relish the chipper Evelyn Ryan, the Defiance, Ohio mother of ten children, the alter ego of the real-life mother Terry Ryan writes about. She was the family’s resourceful safety net as it moved around in a state of constant turmoil. An avid entrant in all those television jingle contests that were rife in the 1950s; such as, trying to come up with a jingle for Dial soap to win an oil well–one contest she didn’t win. But Evelyn won enough contests to keep her family in money seemingly after every crisis and with appliances like televisions and freezers. Her failed husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson) is an embittered, self-loathing man given to temper tantrums, abuse and unduly suffering under the strain as he struggles to be the breadwinner as society demands. The would-be band singer had his showbiz aspirations cut short by an accident that took away his singing voice and now is unhappy at a tiresome job as a factory machinist and wastes his paycheck on booze instead of providing milk for the family.

In this offbeat film that’s shot in a conventional style, Evelyn addresses the camera every now and then to speak her mind. There’s no question that Moore is good at digging out whatever riches lie in her sympathetic character role, the problem is that Anderson’s screenplay lacks the edge of her 1993 HBO movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. The script just dulls out and leaves the willing and able thesps hung out to dry with nothing more than a gooey and uninteresting melodrama, making it more like a second-rate women’s pic than something fresh from a feminist point of view. The movie has little choice but to pay tribute to the 50’s rigid social conventions and its ideal of the subservient domestic earth mother, as it heaps on mom its heartfelt respect and empathy for her sacrifice for family values without making the irresponsible dad a totally evil figure. The movie shines briefly when it compares the classic daytime game show “Queen for a Day” to Evelyn’s desperate challenging life, as it shows how that program could at the same time honor and insult its anxious bereft contestants.