From its opening moments when sappy piano music drifted through the speakers, I had a pretty good idea of what The Cider House Rules was going to feel like. And I was right. While this 125 minute drama doesn’t reach over the bounds of enjoyability, it does fairly loudly voice the cries of “Give us an award!” Based on the 1985 John Irving novel of the same name, this film is set in 1943, at an orphanage in Maine. It is run by Wilbur Larch (MICHAEL CAINE). He and his staff work to take great care of the orphans, some who remain for years. Dr. Larch also uses rooms in the building to deliver babies and perform abortions on request, which were illegal at the time. He explains that he does this to prevent women from undergoing an unsanitary and dangerous form of the procedure performed by untrained people in back alleys, which for some could be their only alternative.
He is training a 21 year old man named Homer Wells (TOBEY MAGUIRE) to work with patients and assist him in the orphanage’s day to day operations. Homer was born at the orphanage, and while coming close, never found an adoptive family. Dr. Larch sees Homer as being competent and gifted as a doctor. However, when a couple (PAUL RUDD and CHARLIZE THERON) stop by the orphanage to have an abortion, Homer leaves with them. As they drive away in a shiny red convertible, with all the nurses and orphans waving Homer goodbye, Larch refuses to even watch this occur, sorely disappointed by his apprentice’s exit.
Homer ends up at an apple farm, owned by Wally (Rudd’s character)’s family. While Homer learns to pick apples with the migrant workers, headed up by Mr. Rose (DELROY LINDO), Wally is away at war. As this orphan’s life grows and his experiences blossom to new proportions, he also falls in love with Candy (Theron’s character).
You’d be hard pressed to say that this movie isn’t good. Everything is lit warmly, with an emphasis on wooden colors and hues. The script, written by Irving, moves at an even pace, never feeling too slow or too fast. The acting is variable, but never intolerable. The best here is Caine, who uses a perfect New England accent, and playing his character with experience and emotion. This would go on to win him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (he had won before in 1987, but he wasn’t at the ceremony because he was busy filming Jaws 4, of all movies). Anyway, back with the acting. Maguire, with a steady combination of handsomeness and civility, is good, but not memorable. The same goes with Theron, whose wonderful hair and makeup styling is similar to the Hollywood starlets of the era. It’s strange – I’ve seen both in far more memorable performacnes. They do have the talent. Lindo’s incredible performance went strangely unnoticed accolades-wise, and the character’s tormented daughter, Rose Rose (that’s not a typo), is played very well by Erykah Badu.
But there’s something missing. I don’t know if missing is the right word, but at times, The Cider House Rules has all of its components, and doesn’t really click. Is it Rachel Portman’s melodramatic score? Perhaps. Is it the fact that despite the otherwise innocent production design is mixed with dialogue and themes of the always controversial abortion, alongside mention of the terrible crimes of rape and incest? Perhaps. Or maybe, it’s all of these things and something else. Or maybe it’s none of these things and something else. It’s just that in the end, there was something unappealing about this movie that kept me from awarding it a higher mark.
I end with a light recommendation for The Cider House Rules. This isn’t a movie worth seeking out, but if it’s on TV, go for it. There’s a lot here to admire, but if you see it, you may not help but feel there were things holding it back.