The Cider House Rules
The Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, who sometimes seems to have made a career of films about young boys in crisis ("My Life as a Dog," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") has now given us the film of John Irving's "The Cider House Rules," for which Irving has also written the screenplay. It's the story of an orphanage in rural Maine during the 1930s and 40s, and of a young boy, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), adopted into the orphanage by its director, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine).
Dr. Larch's orphanage has specialized in birthing and taking in unwanted babies and children, and in providing (illegal) abortions to those women who won't carry them to term. Dr. Larch has hopes that Homer will grow up to follow him as director, and so he teaches the boy how to deliver babies and how to perform an abortion; when Homer comes of age he has a couple of skills denied to his contemporaries.
But Homer has been perhaps oversheltered by the very loving arms of the orphanage, and needs to see the world. In 1943, when he's 21, a young couple, Candy and Wally (Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd), show up for an abortion, and Homer asks if they will take him away when they leave. They go to the coast, where Candy's father is a lobsterman and Wally's mother owns an apple orchard, and Homer begins work in the orchard. This is World War II, of course, and Wally is an army pilot, flying over the Hump to China; while he's gone Homer and Candy have an affair.
At the same time, we meet a migrant crew of black men, led by a Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo), who come each year to the orchard to pick apples, and they and Homer live in the cider house during the harvest. The following year, though, when the crew returns, there is a tragedy of incest to be confronted and dealt with, Homer must decide which direction his life should go, and the film ends with Homer making his decision.
It's unlikely, to say the least, that a film writer would have thought to create this story; only Irving's clout as a popular novelist allowed it to find financing (from Miramax), but it is exactly the kind of story that the movies need to produce from time to time. It deals with difficult, agonizing questions that movies either run away from or present as explosive sensations with pat solutions; but here they are seen in a more modulated way, as part of the larger fabric of life and death. Hallstrom paces the film slowly enough to let things happen almost in real time, but it does not drag. His orphan children break your heart, but not because he's reaching for cheap effects; it's because all orphans break your heart. Every night, after reading Dickens to the children, Dr. Larch tells his boys: "Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England." It is the repeated reassurance they need, in order to know that they will wake up again in the morning. A couple I know used to say to their two daughters: "Good night, little girls, we hope you sleep well." And the girls would always reply: "Goodnight, goodnight, dear Miss Clavell." Somehow Bemelmans knew the right formula.
The film has some elements that are unexpectedly successful, and some that have, equally unexpectedly, gone wrong. Among the successful parts is an unemphasized yet visible love and affection that the group of black migrant workers feel for each other. And although there is a horrifying episode related to this, yet the film lets us see them as warm and thoughtful men.
At the same time, playing the central figure of Homer, Tobey Maguire is almost criminally inadequate. He pastes one expression on his face, a kind of quizzical smile, and holds it grimly for two hours. There is no depth to him; he's a blank. Is there a crisis? Blank look. Is there love, and sex, and romance? Blank look. Is there a crime? Another blank look. And so with a void at its center, the film becomes just a pastiche of moments and scenes, lacking any forward thrust. You can almost sense Michael Caine, who has played a hundred roles not unlike this one, trying to shake Maguire enough to draw out some kind of performance from him. And obviously Hallstrom couldn't do it either. Fortunately, there are enough other actors here who can play well, and enough scenes with power or wit, to nearly carry us through. But ultimately what might have been a story of growth and love and pain becomes just a shell around Maguire's vacuum.