The rules of the cider house remain unread for the longest time. But in the meantime, there are other rules that everyone follows, rules that help things run more smoothly. And these are the rules that count.
The Cider House Rules is Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel. It follows Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire in another solid, well-delivered role), who grows to adolescence in a Maine orphanage. The orphanage’s doctor, Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine, performing with a convincing American accent) raises Homer as his own. Under the doctor’s tutelage, Homer learns about general practice, pediatrics, and yes, even gynecology.
Dr. Larch is relieved that Homer is growing into such a promising young man because he’d hate to see the orphanage fall into the hands of more traditional, less liberal doctors. (Dr. Larch is willing to perform abortions, even though they are illegal in the 1940s). But Homer has other ideas. He’s lived his whole life in the orphanage and he wants to get out. Besides, he’s not willing to perform an abortion, in spite of Dr. Larch’s constant lecturing.
Eventually, Homer finds a way to leave, and he does. He takes the first job he finds, picking apples. He starts a complicated yet rewarding life outside the orphanage, where he finds love, work, money, and friendship in the apple business. But Dr. Larch and the staff won’t let him forget how important it is to them that he return and take over the practice.
The Cider House Rules is sweet and sentimental. The characters are good and well-meaning, even though the conflicts and complexities that confront them are genuinely troubling. The characters address such issues as abortion, violence, love, freedom, and responsibility. There’s a lot going on in The Cider House Rules, which should earn praise for Hallström and Irving (who advised on the film and even plays a small role as the stationmaster).
But the movie takes on too much for my tastes. The life in the orphanage and the life outside could have made two different movies. Maybe 45 minutes of film time pass at the orphanage, and we think we know the story and all the characters. But after Homer leaves, we meet a bushel of new characters at the orchard. To Irving (and to Homer), the two parts are equally important. But on film, the Y-shaped story doesn’t seem right.
Similarly, the film isn’t sharp or incisive. Its message is soft and mushy like applesauce, instead of clear and distilled, like hard cider. Instead of jolting your mind, it’s easy to swallow, plain and palatable. It brings up hard issues like abortion, trauma, and fraud, but it never takes a convincing stance one way or the other. In itself this is not a criticism; in fact, it seems to be Irving’s point — that meaningful rules can only be made by those who have to abide by them day by day; but because the movie asked so many interesting and controversial questions, I wish it had at least told us what its rules were, and how it arrived at them.
But these points could work in favor of the movie, depending on your tastes. For instance, you might say that merely addressing these issues is enough, or that a sweet drama is no place for divisive political issues.
For me, I wish the movie had narrowed and sharpened its focus. Still, I enjoyed it overall. I was won over by the charming and simple characters. Nobody had a mean streak. Nobody was the villain. The people who caused pain and conflict were normal people making unoriginal mistakes. Irving and Hallström gave them room to learn from their mistakes, then let life flow on.