On-Line Review by Christian Leopold Shea:


© 1999 by Christian Leopold Shea. All rights reserved.

Candy (Charlize Theron) introduces Homer (Tobey Maguire) to a lobster in The Cider House Rules
Photo ©1999 by Miramax Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Cider House Rules, starring Tobey Maguire, Clarlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, and Michael Caine, who won last year's Golden Globe for Best Actor, is Miramax Pictures's end-of-the-year Oscar® contender. (It is to be remembered that last year's hugely successful Shakespeare in Love was also released by Miramax in December, leaving it fresh in the mind's of Academy Awards voters.) Written by John Irving (The World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, etc.) from his own novel, Cider House Rules has had a previous incarnation, as well: as a two-part play with a six hour total running time, three times longer than the film. One should think of this as a distillate of the entirety of The Cider House Rules.

Tobey Maguire plays Homer Wells, an orphan who grows up during the 1930's and '40s in the orphanage of the tiny town of St. Cloud, Maine. After two unsuccessful attempts are made to adopt the infant Homer, he is taken under the wing of the orphanage's director, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Caine), a kindly man who has three main duties in life which he believes make other people's lives better: he cares for the orphans, he delivers babies, and he performs abortions on demand. It is this last (extremely illegal) activity which Homer learns of as he grows up, and in which he refuses to participate, although his assistance at the deliveries of countless babies makes him, by the time he is seventeen, an accomplished (but unlicensed) obstetrician. The orphans, especially Homer, and the orphanage's two nurses, Nurse Edna and Nurse Angela (Jane Alexander and Kathy Baker), are the widowed Dr. Larch's family. Dr. Larch's parting words to the orphan boys each night are: "Good night, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England." The abortionist's love for the children under his care is obvious.

The family atmosphere of St. Cloud's orphanage is inadvertantly turned upside-down by the arrival of Candy Kendall (Theron) and her pilot boyfriend, Lt. Wally Worthington (Rudd), who come to the orphanage so that Candy may have an abortion. Awed by both the beautiful Candy and by the worldly pilot Wally, Homer, who has been kept out of the Second World War by a heart problem, makes the momentous decision to leave with them when they return home -- Candy to her lobster-fishing family and Wally to his family's apple cider business for the duration of his leave. Having no skills other than reading, writing (and practicing medicine without a license), Homer goes to work picking apples with the migrant laborers at the Worthington orchards. It is here that the film is truest to its original story.

The apple-picking crew is led by the seemingly kind Mr. Rose (Lindo), whose daughter, Rose (that's right -- Rose Rose), played by Erykah Badu, is the only woman on the crew, and Homer becomes the only White man. At the cider house are the Rules of the story's title, a sheet of typed paper whose purpose becomes clear only much later in the story, because, as Homer reads them aloud, the camera shows the Rules each being violated until he is finally told to stop reading them. The work crew is like a family, and Mr. Rose is the head of that family, and has no need of a typed list of rules -- everyone knows his rules without any of them being spoken or written.

The unwritten, unspoken rules of the laborers begin to become clear to Homer when one of the crew deliberatey defies an order from Mr. Rose. Mr. Rose becomes insistent, and when a knife is pulled on him, he reacts instantaneously, leaving no question in anyone's mind that he is kind only as long as his unwritten rules are obeyed; breaking them could be deadly.

Once Wally returns to service in Burma, Candy, who cannot endure being alone, befriends Homer, the only available White man her age. When apple-picking season ends, Homer remains at the Worthington place, and with good reason -- he and Candy have begun a torrid sexual affair. This is no secret to the crew -- it is only a secret to be kept from others, but they return the following season carrying an uglier secret, which Homer and Candy only gradually discover, and Rose Rose obliges Homer to make the most momentous decision of his life.

At the orphanage, meanwhile, an increasingly distressed Dr. Larch, knowing that he is facing imminent replacement by the orphanage's board of directors, becomes increasingly addicted to inhaling the ether which he ordinarily uses to anaesthetize his patients, and begins hallucinating about his own lost love -- something which those unfamiliar with the story will find utterly confusing, for no explanation at all is provided in the film for Dr. Larch's mysterious dancing partner, who simply appears on-screen briefly, although she is an integral character in the story as a whole.

Dr. Larch sends pleading letters to Homer begging him to return to the orphanage, and even sends him a doctor's bag with an obstetrical kit, but Homer, who wants nothing to do with Dr. Larch's abortions, steadfastly refuses, even when Dr. Larch concocts what he believes will be a fool-proof plan to have Homer step into his shoes when the directors finally remove him.

Ultimately, Homer receives a summons from the orphanage which he cannot refuse, and the story culminates in a surprising ending, an ending, unfortunately, watered-down for the film.

A pleasant and lyrical film for those unfamiliar with either the novel or the play, The Cider House Rules may leave those who are familiar with the work wondering where the other two-thirds of the story went, a good question, since the brief two hour running time of the film significantly alters The Cider House Rules and drastically changes the emphasis. For those unfamiliar with the original, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because The Cider House Rules is a good movie in and of itself; it simply cannot compare to the full experience of the novel or the play. It is the gripping, and often amusing stories of the characters at the orphanage which suffer the worst from editorial amputations.

Dr. Larch's storyline, in particular, is cut out with a heavy hand. Perhaps thinking that a kindly abortionist would not be the best character to release to audiences at Christmas time, one of the most complex characters in modern literature -- whose frequent debates with Homer are thought-provoking and make the original The Cider House Rules neither pro- nor anti-abortion -- is almost completely eliminated from the film. This is not only an affront to the audience, but a virtual insult to Michael Caine, who might well have finally brought home a Best Actor Oscar® had he been allowed to play Dr. Larch as a full-blooded character.

Tobey Maguire is thoughtful as Homer Wells, but without Dr. Larch as a verbal sparring partner, and with the almost complete elimination of the character of the orphan Mary Agnes, the tomboy hellion of St. Cloud's in the original story, who is reduced to a non-entity who simply sticks her tongue out at Homer at first and then is -- mystifyingly to those unfamiliar with the whole story -- happy to see Homer return to the orphanage, Homer himself becomes almost a non-entity. Instead of being a complex, multi-faceted character (a role which might have brought some awards nominations to Maguire, as well), Homer is, frankly, bland, and not the independent, ardent young hero he should be.

Nurse Edna and Nurse Angela, who provide welcome comedy relief in the whole story as well as much-needed motherly tenderness, are reduced to little more than extras in The Cider House Rules Movie. Nevertheless, one of the orphans to watch for in the future is new-comer Spencer Diamond, who plays Curly, "the best" orphan -- or so he tells prospective parents, who is given considerable screen time, as is Kieran Culkin, playing "Buster."

The performers playing the migrant laborers fare far better in the film than any of the other actors. Delroy Lindo is powerful as crew chief Mr. Rose. Stage, film and television star K. Todd Freeman (staked last season on television's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer") smoulders as the quiet, all-observant, "Muddy." Grammy-winner Erykah Badu turns in a wonderfully touching first performance as Rose Rose, the catalyst who changes Homer's life forever. Even Grammy nominee Heavy D, in his first feature film role, is strong and earnest in the small but essential supporting role of Peaches, whose quiet thoughtfulness finally helps Homer see what course his life must take.

(For the benefit of the trivia buffs among you, that is writer John Irving playing the stationmaster in the film.)

Director Lasse Hallstrom (best-known for My Life as a Dog, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which starred Sleepy Hollow's Johnny Depp and Tobey's pal, Leonardo DiCaprio, who earned an Oscar® nomination for the film) cannot be blamed for the faults of The Cider House Rules Movie. Given either a severely shortened script as a story, or else obliged to watch a much longer film sliced and diced to suit the miniscule attention spans of test audiences, Hallstrom did a good, professional job. Who knows? Somewhere on a cutting room floor there may be a work of art lying in pieces, bearing the title Cider House Rules, but that is not what Miramax is releasing this December. If there is a longer version of the film, one hopes that Miramax will release it as a two-video set or an extra-long DVD, because the two hours of The Cider House Rules Movie simply do not do justice to John Irving's literary masterpiece, any more than Sleepy Hollow does justice to Washington Irving's masterpiece, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

All in all, it has been a lousy year for Irvings!

With the rise in theater ticket prices and the growing international audience of our page, our old NW2: Not Worth $2 to W8: Worth $8 rating scale has become less useful than previously, so, in line with the scale used by the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) we have adopted a scale of 1 star to 10 stars, with "1 Star" being a VERY bad movie, and "10 Stars" being a movie classic. Our On-Line Reviewer, however, has gone where IMDb has never gone before: he has added a score of Zero for those movies which are so bad that they are not even good "camp" -- movies so bad that not even "Mystery Science Theater 3000" could could make them worth watching.

On this scale, anything rated "7 Stars" or above is worth the cost of a theater ticket, "8 Stars" is worth standing in line to buy a ticket, "9 Stars" is worth standing in line in a driving rain rainstorm or killer heatwave to buy a ticket, and "10 Stars" is a movie worth driving hundreds of miles to go see -- at least in Dr. Shea's own opinion. Accordingly,

Taken strictly on its own merits, The Cider House Rules is a 7 Star movie.

Those familiar with the novel and the play, have, however, been warned: the movie is only one-third of the whole story!

Advisories: many adult themes, some violence, inhalant drug use, teenaged cigarette smoking, deaths of a child and of parents, brief rear nude scene of Charlize Theron (artfully done, though, so kid-safe). Probably unsuitable for children under ten years old, who will find little of interest in the movie, anyway.

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