DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
CIDER HOUSE RULES, THE  (director: Lasse Hallström; screenwriter: John Irving, based on his novel; cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin; cast: Tobey Maguire (Homer Wells), Michael Caine (Dr. Wilbur Larch), Charlize Theron (Candy Kendall), Delroy Lindo (Mr. Rose), Paul Rudd (Wally Worthington), Jane Alexander (Nurse Edna), Kathy Baker (Nurse Angela), Kieran Culkin (Buster), Kate Nelligan (Olive Worthington), Erykah Badu (Rose Rose), Heavy D (Peaches), Spencer Diamond (Curly), K. Todd Freeman (Muddy), Erik Sullivan (Fuzzy); Runtime: 125; Miramax Films; 1999)

 
"I felt touched by the film."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

"The Cider House Rules" is an old-fashioned coming-of-age story with a big heart: it is a slow moving tale that builds on its characterizations and never wavers in the warmness of its story, no matter, even if somehow events turn sour. It is the kind of humanistic story Hollywood can do very well when it puts its mind to it, and has done itself proud in this production, making it the kind of film Oscar is partial to. The one fly in the ointment is its pro-choice emphasis, probably too controversial for Hollywood to want to deal with, even if the director has gone out of his way to be evenhanded in presenting both sides of the issue. So far no outcries from church groups against the film have materialized.

John Irving, whose meandering novel this film is based on, after not being pleased with other films based on his novels ("The World According to Garp,"  "The Hotel New Hampshire," and "Simon Birch"), stayed with the film as screenwriter and made sure it accurately reflected what his book was like. The film took him 13-years in trying to get the project off the ground; the result is a pleasingly sensitive narrative, avoiding anything too sugary. It is one in which Caine gives a masterful performance; Maguire, in a minimalist performance, is convincing as the innocent young man searching for answers to life; and Lindo, as a black migrant worker, Mr. Rose, with both a good and bad side to him, gives off a strong and very charismatic presence as the head of the work crew. Mr. Irving makes a cameo as the train stationmaster. In his book, "My Movie Business," Irving explains all the hardships he went through in getting this movie produced, which included having his first choice of director Philip Boros die, depart amicably from his second choice Wayne Wang, and then cashiered Michael Winterbottom not-so-amicably before hiring Hallstrom.

It is a story about St. Clouds's orphanage in Maine, out there in the boondocks, where the unwanted children reside under the loving care of its director, an obstetrician, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Caine). It is a place none go to unless they want to adopt a child or abort one. The story begins with the birth of Homer Wells (Toby) in 1922 and it tells of two failed attempts to have him adopted, resulting in him being returned both times to the orphanage. Dr. Larch becomes resigned that Homer will remain in the orphanage and decides to make him his protege, and teaches him how to deliver babies and all the medical knowledge he came to acquire. The only thing Homer won't do, is abortions.

The main theme of the film is that in your life it's most important "to be of use." It is also about rules and how they are applied. The rules that make the most sense are the one's that are made by the party concerned, not by some outsider. Dr. Larch's pro-choice stand is based on his recognition that people should decide for themselves what they want and that if medical people wouldn't do abortions, those who need abortions would get them in other unsafe places. Dr. Larch has lost his idealism and is very flexible about what he believes, and what he believes most is that he should be of help in any way he can, especially to the children under his care and the couples and pregnant women who visit the orphanage. Out of necessity, he has become very practical and cunning in getting along in a world that for the most part he considers to be a very selfish and cold place. On the contrary Homer has led an insulated life, never having left Maine; and, therefore, his views are naive about most things. Abortion is something he doesn't believe in except in a case of rape or incest. With Homer it is not necessarily a religious reason he is so against abortions as it is one that he has experienced himself, if he was aborted as an unwanted child he obviously wouldn't be alive today. Homer believes people must learn to be responsible and that couples should just behave morally, and thereby everything will be fine.

The story is set mainly in the years between 1943 and 1945, during WW 11. The first part of the film is about the kids in the orphanage and the great love they receive there from Dr. Larch who reads them stories and joyfully bids his children "Good night, you princes of Maine--you kings of New England!" There is a loving goodnight from Dr. Larch each and every evening, with the same refrain. The benevolent humanitarian, the abortionist whose only apparent character defect other than his maverick interpretation on the rules, is getting high on ether. Dr. Larch is almost saintly in caring for the unwanted children. It is also apparent that the pro-life supporters are not there for these kids with monetary or parental support. They choose to ignore the problem from their more secure quarters in life, even though they are quite vocal in their pro-life stand. The good doctor would be happy delivering babies and not doing abortions, if he thought that all the babies he delivered would be adopted. The only question he couldn't answer, probably because it is a question that can't be answered, is when Homer says "If I were aborted, I would not have a chance to exist."

One of the most powerful scenes is when a prospective couple visit the center and all the children who were just tossing snowballs at one another quickly switch gears putting on big smiles, as they vie for the couple's attention, hoping they will be the one chosen to go home with them. It reminded me of going to an animal shelter to adopt a dog and watching how they also make friendly gestures at their prospective owners. The point made is that the children still want to go home to a family, despite this orphanage being such a kindly run place.

The second part of the film involves the good-hearted, quiet and sincere Homer, seeing life from a point of view away from the orphanage. Homer befriends an army pilot (Rudd) on leave and his attractive girlfriend, Candy (Theron ), whom he takes to the orphanage for an abortion. Homer gets a ride with them away from the orphanage, leaving it for the first-time to see the world and an ocean he has never seen, and decides to take a job as an apple-picker that the pilot offers him on his mother's orchard. Homer is the only white among the black migrant workers. This is no problem to Homer, he is an outsider wherever he would be and fits in nicely with the workers living with them and sharing in their worldly experiences.

The film gets its name from a list of rules posted on the cider house wall where the migrant's live, which have never been read by them because they are illiterate. When they ask Homer to read them the rules, they tell him the rules were made by those who don't live in the house and that is why they don't apply to them. The only rules they can follow, are made by the ones who live in the house. This is, of course, analogous to Dr. Larch' thinking about rules, that rules have to make sense for those that are following them.

Swedish Director Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog/What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) has made an articulate film, one that goes over territory such as abortion, incest, murder, and forging records, and asks the viewer to use their intelligence in seeing what is right or wrong. It is, at all times, a visually beautiful film. The children are heart-stoppers, and Caine is simply brilliant in drawing them out. I loved his response to one of the orphans who asked him, "Where he's from?" and he responds, "I'm an immigrant." The child says, "Where's that?" and he says, "Somewhere not in Maine." There is not one flawed scene in the story, in a story that has a few subplots that run parallel to its main motif. But the film remains mostly a story about those trying to live a just life, trying to find their destiny in a troubled world, where answers are not always so rigidly determined but take a certain wisdom to solve them; a wisdom that is gained through experience and following one's heart. Homer learns that it never hurts to love another and that it is necessary to find a place to live where you can call home. Whether or not one's fate is sealed at birth might or might not be so, but chance certainly interferes with one's life-long designs. If Homer felt what love from a woman was like, to have-and-lose such love, he also learned how important the love the doctor had for him was who acted as a surrogate father towards him and the children; and, how the doctor loved him dearly, doing all that he could for him. Now that the doctor is dead, Homer is in a position of doing the same thing for others. Homer's insightful look at the world is also the viewer's way of seeing things the way a child would, who hungers so much for honest affection and is striving to find his place in the world.

The filmmaker has told a positive story, in a straight narrative style. The only failing is that, maybe, the director walked too fine a line in regards to the abortion issue subplot, not making his motives absolutely clear. Yet it seems obvious where the film's heart lies, anyway. But, maybe the filmmaker answered the abortionist question with trepidation like a liberal Republican engaged in a presidential primary might be forced to answer the question, in order not to scare the right-wing away.

As for me, this is a beautiful and delicate film that all but spells out its leanings for pro-choice as a practical answer to the controversial problem. Yet some movie reviewers, including the popular Roger Ebert, find that the theme of the film is muddled. Ebert is not sure what the point of the story is about. A response like that surprises me because it is one thing to not like the film, but I can't see not liking it for that reason. I had no trouble with its showing how terrifying an ordeal an abortion could be, as it also showed how necessary it was not to leave an abortion in the hands of someone with a coat-hanger -- that it was a medical problem as much as it was an ethical problem. I couldn't see how the filmmaker could be clearer about what side of the fence the film was on. That it was not up to us to judge, whether it is the misdeeds of a Mr. Rose or of a pregnant woman, we can only try and help someone the best way we can.

The story had a natural rhythm, and the relationship between Caine and Maguire wasn't contrived but seemed to generate its own energy; it seemed genuinely affecting. I felt touched by the film and its ability to tell such a heartbreaking story in such a sensitive and intelligent manner, without it being an arthouse film. It was also no mystery about what Homer will do on his return to the clinic; he will do what he thinks is best for the children he loves and for the couples who visit the orphanage. That is the point: one can only do what is in one's heart and learned through one's experiences in life, everything else is superficial and based on someone else's belief.

REVIEWED ON 2/5/2000      GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus'  World Movie Reviews"

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