The Cider House Rules

The film versions of John Irving�s novels (The World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire) have seen varied results with the author�s typically quirky mix of eccentric characters, nostalgia and sentiment. With The Cider House Rules, Irving has finally found the director to do his novel (and screenplay adaptation) justice: Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish director of My Life As a Dog and What�s Eating Gilbert Grape. Hallstrom has already shown an amazing capability to deliver emotional performances from child actors without a trace of saccharine, and he shines here again with a wonderful rendering of complex, interesting characters in a coming-of-age story.

The film compacts the novel’s early history of the orphanage of St. Cloud�s, Maine, in order to focus on young Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire). Abandoned at birth and returned twice by foster families, Homer grows to young adulthood in the orphanage. He learns to assist the doctor running the place, Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), in much of his work, which is as much involved in obstetrics for unwed mothers as it is in caring for the children. As a teenager, Homer is already delivering babies himself.

The doctor performs abortions, to which Homer objects, particularly as it reminds him of his own precarious existence. In this otherwise secure and hermetically sealed world, Homer suspects correctly that he is being groomed as the doctor�s successor and might never leave or see the world beyond the isolated village. Impulsively, he leaves with an unmarried couple, Wally (Paul Rudd) and Candy (Charlize Theron), who were at St. Cloud’s to abort Candy’s baby.

They go to the coast, where Homer takes seasonal work as an apple picker and lobsterman, living with migrant workers in the "cider house" of the title. He learns about the compromises in life made in the face of arbitrary "rules", as symbolized by the absurd list posted in the cider house. Homer falls in love with Candy while Wally is at war, but ultimately must give her up. He intervenes in an incestuous relationship between father (Delroy Lindo) and daughter (Erykah Badu).

Meanwhile, Dr. Larch has made serious plans for Homer�s return, even creating falsified qualifying documents for him and sending the young man a bag of instruments to remind him of his origins. And eventually, Larch�s death leads Homer back to take over the young charges, his "Kings of New England" and "Princes of Maine".

If the story sounds relatively simple, it is, and in the wrong hands this could have been a mawkish snore-fest, as the wretchedly misleading trailer now circulating for the film might lead you to conclude. As in Hallstrom�s earlier films, not much happens, but it is all so lovingly and skillfully rendered that it is fascinating to watch and it is possible to be moved without having one�s intelligence insulted. The lush cinematography by Oliver Stapleton enhances Hallstrom�s sensitive direction.

Michael Caine�s performance as the the ether-addicted doctor is charming, even if his attempt at an American accent is wobbly. Charlize Theron is fine as the girl who loves Homer but must leave him, as are Delroy Lindo and Kathy Baker in supporting roles. Tobey Maguire�s by now familiar wise-youth-with-deadpan-delivery is absolutely appropriate for this major role, but runs so close to his performances in The Ice Storm and Ride With the Devil that he is in danger of being typecast.

– Tim Cassidy