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Cider House Rules, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/26/07 16:25:27

"Fine Irving adaptation."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

John Irving hasn't had much luck with movies. The first of his efforts to be adapted, 'The World According to Garp,' made an interesting film and a good early showcase for Robin Williams' dramatic acting, but in the few attempts since -- 'The Hotel New Hampshire,' 'Simon Birch' -- too much was lost in the translation.

So Irving decided to tackle his novel The Cider House Rules himself, and though he may have drafted a strong and faithful screenplay, the hero of the movie version is the director -- Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape), who seems to have a natural understanding of loneliness.

Loneliness, in fact, is the main subject of The Cider House Rules -- that and the notion that people shouldn't live by rules or destinies prescribed for them by others. Of course, isolation and independence are the yin and yang of living one's own life, and the places in The Cider House Rules -- an orphanage/clinic, an apple orchard -- are proudly divorced from the societies they serve. People stay in these places because they have nowhere else to go, and they might as well be someplace where people care whether they live or die. At the orphanage, lives are saved and put on a shelf for possible later adoption. At the orchard, apples are picked and turned into cider, or shipped out into the world like orphans.

Young Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has a foot in both worlds. Homer begins life as a twice-rejected orphan at St. Cloud's, the orphanage run by the pragmatic Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine). Homer stays at St. Cloud's and becomes Dr. Larch's protege, assisting with pregnant women who, one way or another, need to be relieved of the burden of motherhood. One such woman, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron), arrives at St. Cloud's to unburden herself; when she is ready to leave with her soldier boyfriend (Paul Rudd), Homer decides to go with them. He wants to see what the outside world is like; he also has a major crush on Candy. The boyfriend goes off to war and leaves Homer to work, more or less happily, picking apples for his family business. Candy has trouble being alone; the expected sparks fly.

Much of The Cider House Rules might feel pretty derivative on paper. We've seen a lot of the plot elements before, including a lovable orphan with bronchitis. Yet Irving's clean, economical dialogue and Hallström's beautifully morose direction cut the fat off of the cliches, whittling them down to useful archetypes. This movie joins a roster of other recent films -- Magnolia, Girl, Interrupted, Cradle Will Rock -- that express yearning for surrogate families in times of disconnection, and Cider House is the best of the lot. It also boasts the best performances, from Delroy Lindo as the apple-picking crew boss to the singer Erykah Badu in an impressively low-key acting debut as his traumatized daughter Rose.

This is Homer's story (Maguire turns in another subtle job here), so we don't get to see as much of Michael Caine as we'd like to; Dr. Larch is a supporting player, one of the movie's two flawed father figures. Caine takes a potentially idealized character and makes him absorbing through hard-headed realism. It's not until later that you realize how painful the doctor's job is -- forever losing his surrogate sons -- and how quietly moving Caine is. The movie isn't flawless; the tragedies pile up a little too thick near the end, as if Irving had noticed the two-hour mark approaching and rushed to wrap things up.

Still, 'The Cider House Rules' casts a glum spell; it feels more substantial than the usual coming-of-age movie. The more you think about it later, the larger it gets -- much unlike most films these days, which only seem to get smaller.

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