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Everyone knows that the ideal ’50s housewife reared her children, kept a spotless home, pampered her husband, and was perfectly pressed, coiffed, and made-up while doing it all. But according to The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, this suburban legend also managed one other feat: instantly defusing her spouse’s alcoholic rages, with a quip, a bright smile, or, when things got especially tense, maybe a flung bowl of Jell-O.
As portrayed in writer-director Jane Anderson’s debut feature film, this type of woman—forever to be played by Julianne Moore—is plucky, yes, but also a bit psychotic. Moxie is one thing. But laughing in the face of a desperately self-hating man when he’s drunk? Moore’s Evelyn Ryan does just that—and more: She ignores him while giggling with the kids, condescendingly but chirpily says, “Yes, I can hear you!” when he freaks about not being listened to, and dismisses him with “Really, where do you come up with these things?” when he hisses out what he thinks her problem is.
Such moments aren’t emphasized in Prize Winner, but they do make the apple-cheeked Evelyn just a mite harder to buy as an example of human perfection. The film is the true tale of Evelyn Ryan, a mother of 10 who kept her household afloat by obsessively entering jingle contests that awarded big bucks or prizes. The script, adapted by Anderson from a book by Evelyn’s daughter, Terry “Tuff” Ryan (here portrayed as a teenager by Ellary Porterfield), strains mightily to at least justify Evelyn’s sometimes shabby treatment of her husband, if not excuse it entirely.
While husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson), a former singer forced to punch a clock after an accident ruined his vocal chords, spends every paycheck on alcohol, Evelyn wins the cars, cash, and supermarket sprees that allow the couple to buy their first home and keep food on the table. There’s not much more to the plot than that. Of course, Evelyn keeps a stiff upper lip while suffering—through Kelly’s tantrums, through the lack of sympathy for her plight from policemen and even members of the clergy, through her inability to attend a weekly out-of-town gathering of other jingle-happy housewives (led by Laura Dern’s chipper Dortha Schaefer) because of Kelly’s refusal to drive her.
Cinematically, Prize Winner is pure sunshine, as bouncily stylized as the wordplay in Evelyn’s jingles. (Sample line: “My frisk-the-Frigidaire, clean-the-cupboards-bare sandwich.”) Moore sometimes addresses the camera directly as her character provides narration, often while standing next to herself; there are frequent whimsical touches such as Evelyn’s riding an envelope as she explains the judging process of her contests, and backup singers who appear whenever Evelyn or Dortha are sharing their jingle entries. Period print ads brightly decorate the opening credits; the soundtrack includes such saccharine ’50s pop songs as “Bye Bye Blues” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.”
Of course, it’s all presided over by Moore’s preternaturally cheery—and, after very similar turns in Far From Heaven and The Hours, now probably rote—domestic goddess. Mercifully, just when Evelyn’s strenuous smileyness and prim reserve start seeming ludicrous, she gets to show a human side. Moore, as ever, expertly portrays her character’s cracking façade. Evelyn’s is a quietly tearful desperation; even her gut-wrenchingly sudden breakdowns are remarkable for their restraint.
If only Anderson had the same discipline. But soon after Prize Winner finally counters its gimmickry with a dash of realism, the film goes past the expected last-act feel-goodness with an appearance by the actual Ryan children, in a move that’s blatantly tear-jerking and borderline maudlin. You get the feeling that the real Evelyn, never one to go for the obvious in her craft, would not approve.
Domino Harvey took a less shiny but no more realistic approach to unruly men. At least that’s the case in Domino, Hollywood’s sorta-true version of Harvey’s model-turned-bounty-hunter story. For example, when a couple of grifters take off with her and a classroom full of other toughs’ money instead of delivering a bounty-hunting-for-dummies lecture, the wispy Domino flies out a window, hurls a knife into their windshield, and shrieks, “Where the fuck do you think you’re going? There are people in there expecting a seminar!”
It’s a line that not even Uma Thurman could pull off. But attempted by ingénue Keira Knightley, it’s downright laughable. Luckily for Knightley, though, it’s the only moment that her casting as Domino feels very, very wrong. Under heavy makeup and studded punk-whore wear, she’s as good a stand-in as any young, pretty actress—because between Tony Scott’s infuriating direction and Donnie Darko auteur Richard Kelly’s script (with a story credit going to Steve Barancik, who penned an earlier draft), the movie is less a look at the life of the real Domino Harvey than it is an excuse to deliver another taxingly edgy, needlessly complicated variation on the crooks-and-guns theme.
Domino gets the most interesting part of the story—why Harvey, the recently deceased daughter of actor Laurence Harvey, turned her back on a career as a Ford model to catch criminals—over with quickly. Sure, she’s shown playing with nunchucks as a sullen teenager, then punching her way out of a sorority as a sullen co-ed. And her dad died when she was young, along with her goldfish, so she learned to be cold. But the closest thing we get to a reason for Harvey’s transformation is a shot of a catwalk with the words “I am bored” appearing next to a model. Then the bloody rampages begin.
It’s not the only time Scott, whose last effort was 2004’s Man on Fire, throws words onto the screen, and each time is more random than the last. Mostly, they’re bits of dialogue spelled out as the line is being said, though for variety, sometimes they’re an echo instead. Knightley provides a voice-over that’s occasionally fuzzed out to sound as if she’s, well, phoning it in. And as if all of these puzzling touches weren’t enough, Scott went the extra mile to ensure his movie was unwatchable: Between the constantly moving camera, dizzying in-and-out zooms, and bizarre flashes that accompany both ultraviolent busts and scenes from Harvey’s childhood, Domino is such a mess visually that it almost doesn’t matter whether the script is any good.
For the record, it’s not. Once Domino earns the respect of partners-in-thuggery Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez) after that knife-throwing incident, she joins them on their assignments, leading to a project in which lots of money, some “sassy black women,” and a few mobsters’ sons are involved. The success of the team and the novelty of a gun-toting Barbie gets it a reality show. Worst of all, in the last chapter of this seemingly endless two hours, romance absurdly blooms. If only your head didn’t hurt so much, you’d laugh.CP