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Review: 'The Cider House Rules' -- both hard and sweet

January 3, 2000
Web posted at: 12:51 p.m. EST (1751 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- In the world according to author John Irving, we're all at the mercy of twisting fate, even as we steer a distinct course through life. It's the unexpected, often horrifying jolts that represent our destiny.

Irving's characters deal bluntly with calamity because it's the only that way they can stay sane. But remaining completely pure-of-heart is all but impossible in such a scattershot existence. All Irving's books deal with this quandary in one form or another, with only "The World According to Garp" receiving a thoroughly laudable translation to the screen (in 1982).


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"The Cider House Rules," based on Irving's sprawling 1985 novel, isn't a bad film by any means. But Irving insisted on writing the screenplay himself. The finished product suffers from the same missteps that you find when other writers adapt his work.

This isn't an aspersion on Irving's considerable talent. It's the nature of his writing. His approach has always been to tinge Norman Rockwell-style Americana with a heavy dose of modern perversity. The gooey majesty of life will receive a soliloquy on page 246, then some poor sucker will manage to lose his private parts on page 254. It's an uneasy balance, even in his best novels.

It's difficult to find a middle ground for Irving's wildly divergent tales. Films based on his books often feel like two or three different stories sewn together like Frankenstein's monster.

Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom, best known in this country for the 1985 art-house hit "My Life as a Dog," usually maneuvers through overt sentimentality without making your feet stick to the floor. But "The Cider House Rules" isn't one film at all. It's two films, only one of which is successful.


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Irving's two 'Rules'

Several of Irving's traditional key signifiers are firmly in place here -- a selfless health-care worker; a huge house that serves as a safe haven for the sick and disenfranchised; and an almost clinical fascination with sexuality. (He leaves out bears, wrestlers and trips to Europe this time around.)

The story is set during World War II. Michael Caine plays Wilbur Larch, a doctor who runs an orphanage. Larch has devoted himself to giving these children a sense of family and the loving care sometimes missing in an orphan's life. He's a kind, gentle man who would do anything for his kids, although he has no qualms about performing illegal abortions when desperate women show up at his doorstep. He also likes to sniff ether during his downtime.

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is an orphan who was raised by Dr. Larch as a son. Over the years, Larch has more or less taught Homer to be a doctor. Although he has no official degree, Homer delivers babies and assists in surgery. But he refuses to perform abortions.

Homer loves the children at the orphanage as if they're his brothers and sisters, which, in a way, they are. But one day a soldier named Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) appears at the orphanage with his pregnant girlfriend, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron), in tow. Dr. Larch performs another abortion, and thus ends film No. 1.

Homer has secretly fallen in love with the angelic Candy, so he decides to bum a ride with her and Wally when they leave. Dr. Larch begs him not to abandon the safe harbor of the orphanage, but Homer is insistent. He'll decide what he's going to do with his life, and he'll take his hard knocks when they suddenly come knocking.

Homer accepts a job as an apple picker at an orchard run by Wally's family. When Wally is shipped back to Europe for a dangerous bombing mission, Homer and the now-lonely Candy are left to their own devices. Guess what happens.

This "second" film takes place in a world far removed from the first. Aside from some pleading letters from Dr. Larch, the orphanage barely enters into it.



Caine, and an able Maguire

The blossoming love affair between Homer and Candy is handled beautifully by Hallstrom. It's much more enjoyable than the often sappy shenanigans at the orphanage. Theron is simply one of the most gorgeous women in the world. Even though she comes from South Africa, her blonde, sun-dappled looks suggest nothing short of baseball and apple pie. She displays the effortless sparkle that defines movie stardom. She's a real actress, too, not just another model slumming for a fat paycheck.

Theron and Maguire are adept at halting recognition. The moment in which they finally fall into each other's arms is as romantic as anything in that recent pull-out-the-stops love story, "The End of the Affair." Their relationship is the tender centerpiece of Homer's post-orphanage life, but there's another, altogether different subplot that finally touches on the lessons we learned in the first part of the film.

While working at the orchard, Homer shares a wooden shack with a group of black migrant workers. Their leader, Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo, who's first-rate), is a charismatic cider maker who handles his crew with care, but isn't afraid to pull out a knife when he needs to.

His fragile daughter, Rose (yes, her name is Rose Rose), is played by singer Erykah Badu. Badu has lovely eyes that convey reams of information without her saying a word. Rose and her father turn out to be the key figures in Homer's spiritual life, and he has to make a difficult decision about retaining his sense of purity while trying to save Rose from a horrible fate.

It should be stressed that the orphanage section of the film has its moments. Caine is especially good, probably because it's the first time he's had a decent role in years. There's something heroic about Dr. Larch, even when you question his sense of ethics.

Kathy Baker and Jane Alexander play his two nurses, and they're all but wasted in minor roles.

But the weight of the film, regardless of its fractured nature, rests on Maguire's slender shoulders. He knows that Homer's greatest gift is his ability to quietly process information. There's a stillness to his performance that anchors the film. Homer accepts those hard knocks with admirable dignity and understanding. And a sense of human dignity is at the core of John Irving's writing.

"The Cider House Rules" contains some surprisingly harsh hospital scenes, including one that's the result of a badly botched abortion. There's some fumbling sex and an extended shot of Theron's bare backside, not that anyone will complain about it. A pretty tough PG-13, all things considered. 131 minutes, but it doesn't seem long.

Tobey Maguire smokes a cigar
September 16, 1999
Theron bellies up for 'Astronaut's Wife'
August 30, 1999

Official 'Cider House Rules' site
Miramax Films
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