The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Time Out says
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but feature films still need more than a "true story" disclaimer to navigate those tricky dramaturgical twists. Such is the case with this Velveeta slice of Midwest hokum, the strangely unconvincing story of hausfrau Evelyn Ryan (Moore), who won hundreds of jingle-writing contests in the '50s and '60s to single-handedly keep afloat her alcoholic husband and ten children.
Just as the debt collectors flag their bills and the bankers threaten to foreclose, Evelyn miraculously becomes the blessed recipient of enough cash and prizes to (barely) ease the family's financial straits. But drunkard dad Kelly (Harrelson, sporting a wiggy brown hairpiece) unleashes his macho rage every time his marketing-savvy wife emasculates him with another mother lode of corporate freebies.
Working from the biography by Evelyn's daughter Terry Ryan, writer-director Anderson throws character complexity and through-line storytelling to the wind. The predictable, numbly amplified cycle of violence created by ever-optimistic Evelyn and self-destructive Kelly is gratuitously used by the filmmaker to whip up suspense whenever the family is in a desperate money pinch. And no time is given to justifying why such a loveless marriage would produce so many kids in the first place. It's sadly ironic that a movie about a clever, witty woman could turn out so clumsy and crass. Her abuse continues.—Stephen Garrett