Cider House Rules
by Jason Morrison
With seven Oscar nominations, Cider House Rules should be among the best films of the past few years. And it is a good film. But the best this year? Some how, it doesn't grab you like American Beauty or even Magnolia.
Perhaps one of the film's assets, it's emotional subtlety, is in part to blame. Part of it could be how straight forward it is, as well. Though the characters are very complete and human and the movie addresses some pretty tough issues, it's not moving on too many levels at the same time. This can be refreshing, but it also leaves less room for discussion afterwards.
Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has spent his whole life in an orphanage, except for two reneged adoptions when he was a baby. Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) noticed something special about the boy so he took him under his wing, teaching him enough to be a fully capable, if not certified, doctor. He's taught him how to take care of the women who come to give birth to children they can't take care of and also how to perform illegal, but safe abortions. Homer, though, refuses to do abortions- Dr. Larch can handle that if he wants, but Homer can't bring himself to do it.
Needless to say Dr. Larch sees Homer almost as a son and the children at the orphanage see him as part of their family. The boys, with names like Curly and Fuzzy, are told a story every night and Dr. Larch puts them to bed saying, "goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England."
One day airman Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) show up to have an abortion. Homer decides then and there that it's time for him to leave the orphanage. He hitches a ride with the two and goes off to work for Wally's mom, picking apples.
He works with a cadre of black migrant workers, despite his medical skills choosing manual labor and boarding in the cider house. Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) is the boss of the group and Homer becomes friends with them, beginning with his daughter Rose Rose (Erykah Badu). He and Candy spend time together and he has the best time of his life. Meanwhile Dr. Larch is worried that the trustees are planning to replace him and makes preparations for Homer to succeed him.
Homer and Candy fall in love over the off season and Rose returns pregnant and frightened. At the same time, Homer must deal with the aspirations of Dr. Larch Wally's eventual return from the war.
On the theme of being a bit two straight forward, the issue of abortion is taken almost for granted throughout the film. This is not and incorrect way to deal with it, of course, and Cider House Rules can't be accused of being callous in that respect. But Homer's qualms barely cause a ripple in his relationship with Dr. Larch, mainly because they are qualms and not broad moral objections. Dr. Larch shows him the results of a back-alley abortion in order to drive his point home. Homer is shocked, but says he'd rather not do them. And there you have it. Not the movie to show at the Kansas Christian Republican convention.
Maguire shows considerable skill with his quiet, unassuming character. A poor performance here would have made the movie almost worthless. Still, there's something not quite gripping about him. If still waters run deep, he's Lake Baikal.
Michael Caine, who's nominated for an Oscar, is even better as the ether-sniffing, orphan-caring doctor. His narration at the beginning of the film say he came to the orphanage looking to be a hero, but there are no heroes there, only caretakers. Caine's performance says that much more beautifully than any voiceover could. He plays one of the most convincing doctors in memory.
Theron was also good as the lonely Candy, though the real surprise performance was by R&B artist Badu. Though her only other acting credit is Blues Brothers 2000, she gave a very touching performance and it would have been nice if she had had more screen time. Her meeting with Homer was kindness with a subtle attraction, and her later pain and shame when pregnant was the most moving part of the film.
Cider House Rules' theme of making your own decisions is valid and develops quite well through the course of the story. Again, though, the conflict in the area really isn't as multifaceted as it could have been. There's some nice symbolism in the eponymous rules of the cider house which the migrant workers can't even read-only Rose is interested in seeking them out and when they are revealed the written rules, handed down, are ludicrous, condescending and already broken. Mr. Rose's statement that we make the rules ourselves, everyday, gets right to the heart of the issue. Homer's decision to leave despite his mentor's wishes is one of those new rules, and his love affair with Candy, flying in the face of her promise to Wally is another new rule, and Homer fully grasps the consequences of making your own decisions only at the end.
Cider House Rules, well worth seeing, comes just short of a truly great film in a few very forgivable ways, but it still falls a little short.
(Out of five)