Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, Michael Caine
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Writing credits: John Irving
Miramax * 131 minutes
Perhaps only John Irving could pull off write a heartwarming, life-affirming, moving, nonjudgmental book about abortion; and certainly Lasse Hallström is the only director capable of filming it. And oh, what a wonderful job he does.
In 1993, Hallström took a strange story full of bizarre characters in WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE and turned a part-native American teen idol and a soon-to-be teen idol with a strange Italian name into respected actors and stars -- and nabbed an Oscar nomination for the kid with the funny name. Now he does the same for that kid's good bud, Tobey Maguire.
Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) runs an orphanage in St. Clouds, Maine, full of children who have been either delivered there or left there. For Dr. Larch is more than just a headmaster, he is an obstetrician. And he does more than deliver babies, he also does abortions, "when they are needed."
Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) grows up at St. Clouds, and is earmarked by Dr. Larch as his heir apparent; learning ob/gyn surgical skills through painstaking, one-on-one lessons and hands-on experience. However, Homer differs from Dr. Larch in one important respect: he will not perform abortions, and as with most absolutists, refuses to acknowledge any circumstances under which it is "necessary."
One day, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) show up at St. Clouds for an abortion. On a whim, Homer decides to leave with them, and signs on as an apple picker in Wally's family orchard. Wally is a fighter pilot, and when he is shipped out again, Homer and Candy become drawn to each other, a development that will change Homer's life forever.
John Irving is a difficult author to film, for his quirky, colorful characters often turn out looking like loonies (see John Lithgow's Roberta Muldoon in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP) and his plots can emerge as incomprehensible. What luck then, to have Irving pen his own screenplay for THE CIDER HOUSE RULES. The result of this stroke of genius is a vintage John Irving story, with vividly-drawn characters and an economical, yet rich, storyline. Indeed, CIDER HOUSE boasts one of the most satisfying and moving film conclusions since THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, a film that it resembles in tone, pacing, and emotional punch.
Hallström directs this film in much the same "everything in its time" style as he did in Gilbert Grape; the film is as unhurried as the small towns in Maine in which it is set. The period details are perfect, including the anachronism of Dr. Larch's ancient gramophone, on which he plays only one record, and his almost as ancient film projector, on which the children in the orphanage are screened KING KONG over and over again (causing Homer to remark, upon seeing WUTHERING HEIGHTS, "It's good...but it's no King Kong"). In perhaps a wink to the audience, the scene we see over and over again is the famous (and for a long time, censored) "Kong removes Fay Wray's clothing" scene. Filmed largely in autumn, Oliver Stapleton's cinematography is breathtaking, from the orphanage-on-a-hill to the lobster boats of the Maine coast.
As is to be expected with a film released in December with an eye towards Oscar® nominations, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES boasts consistently fine performances by an astonishing array of respected actors and newcomers. Tobey Maguire, who is emerging as one of his generation's subtler and more interesting talents, perfectly evokes both Homer's surprisingly strong emotional center and his naivetë. Somewhat dorky looking, with slightly pop eyes, an adorable dimpled smile and the kind of looks he'll have to wait till he's forty until women appreciate, Maguire is capable of conveying a lifetime of words in a single facial expression. A scene in which he surveys Theron stretched out like Ingres' Odalisque and tells her that looking at her makes his heart hurt, is one of the sweetest, loveliest moments you will ever see on film. When required to rise to the occasion and perform a difficult task, a steely resolve takes over, barely visible in his youthful face. Maguire is a towering talent, and without the equally brilliant but often overpowering Reese Witherspoon (PLEASANTVILLE) dominating his innate subtlety, this is his starmaking performance.
While Maguire is the center of the film, he is backed up by fine supporting performances. Michael Caine, with an only intermittently effective Maine accent, somewhat evokes a saner, warmer version of Anthony Hopkins' opinionated Dr. John Kellogg in THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE. His loving goodnight wish to his charges, "Goodnight, you princes of Maine...goodnight, you kings of New England" would certainly join the American lexicon if enough people see this film.
Delroy Lindo, a fiercely intense and riveting actor, is true to form as Mr. Rose, a migrant farm worker who teaches Homer the art of apple picking. He is the leader of a group that also includes a knockout debut by Erykah Badu, unrecognizable without her head wraps, who effectively projects both sassiness and despair.
As the young couple whose appearance changes Homer's life, Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd are serviceable. Rudd is an appealing enough actor, but his character is not well-developed. He also bears a frightening resemblance here to Tim Matheson in Steven Spielberg's FIRST World War II movie, 1941, and a deus ex machina involving him seems almost predictable. Charlize Theron, in a more interesting role, continues to develop as an actress, despite having a face that's almost otherworldly perfect. She is one of the more chameleonic of the younger actresses, and here resembles a young Kim Basinger.
Special mention must be made of the way Hallström handles the children who reside at the orphanage. This is definitely Oliver Twist territory, and yet Hallström manages to avoid the maudlin, showing instead a group of adorable children who will tear your heart out and still remain real. From Fuzzy (Erik Sullivan), the jug-eared kid with lung trouble who insists that Kong thinks Fay Wray is his mother; to Curly (Spencer Diamond), an absolutely adorable tyke who can't understand why no one wants him; to Buster (Kieran Culkin, in a surprisingly good performance, even if he is starting to bear a frightening resemblance to Robert Downey, Jr.). Buster may look like an overgrown version of Jean Shepherd's Grover Dill character from A CHRISTMAS STORY, but it's clearly a hard shell he's built around himself after years of being rejected by prospective adoptive parents.
And here's where the film asks interesting questions about abortion vs. adoption and provides no answers. Recently I watched a 60 MINUTES segment on "adoption parties", essentially an adoption meat market not dissimilar from the dining-hall displays portrayed in this film. My heart went out to those children, just as it does to the children portrayed here, as they watch one of their fellow residents luck into a home. Yet the film is not primarily about the tough questions surrounding reproductive freedom, though it is an important backdrop. Rather, in the everyman persona of Homer Wells, author John Irving and director Lasse Hallström tells us about the interplay of experience and character in making us human.
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