Author Terry "Tuff" Ryan's mom, Evelyn, really was an ad-contest prizewinner in the aptly named town of Defiance, Ohio, and the subject of her sprightly memoir (subtitled "How My Mother Raised Ten Kids on 25 Words or Less"). Saddled with a crooner-turned-boozer husband whose battered liver absorbed the family's disposable income, Evelyn couldn't leave him even after Tuff and others got old enough to urge her to. That would have required defying the Pope and the mandatory-marriage mind-set of the '50s.
Unless you're a Focus on the Family zombie, such ancient shibboleths will strike you as a barn-door target. And there's no denying that Jane Anderson's adaptation has a simple surface. The kids, led by cat-eye-spectacled Tuff (sassy Ellary Porterfield), are cutely saintly, praying for Mom to pen yet another TV jingle so they can avoid eviction and maybe eat a prize of free fish sticks instead of soup containing bugs their mother stoutly denies are there. Julianne Moore's Evelyn is an unsinkably perkier version of the oppressed hausfraus and luckless lovers she often plays—it's as if she'd eaten the speed that fueled Jane Curtin's omnicompetent housewife character on SNL.
But Anderson makes a virtue of simplicity with a bright, kitschy pastiche of '50s homemaker culture. It's fun to hum along with Evelyn's wacky jingles, and a period homemaker in perpetual peril of homelessness is more affecting than a typical satirical caricature as in Pleasantville, which has its own kind of unexamined sentimentality. Moore's Evelyn and her jingle-scribbler gal pals (including Laura Dern at her best) demonstrate that feminism arose because of kitchen consciousness, not just in reaction to it.
In a straightforward tale, our interest is sustained by the alert subtlety of the actors, especially Moore, Porterfield, and Woody Harrelson as the emasculated man of the house, a machinist who feels like a toolless fool thanks to Evelyn's heroic hairbreadth breadwinning. Even in way-too-obvious scenes like Evelyn's session with the local whiskey priest who blames her plight on inadequate homemaking, Moore rivets us with the emotions sweeping across her face— she's stunned, wounded, guilty, angry, forgiving, swiftly analytical, and coolly philosophical in 25 seconds or less.
Granted, my reaction to the film's surprise ending is colored by the fact that my mother used to have to pray for her kids' 3-cent milk money in the stark days of Seattle's 1950s recession. But mostly, what got me was Moore's virtuosity, and the real Mrs. Ryan, who found total control in total denial, made rhyme pay, and saved a dozen lives. (PG-13)