Author John Irving has had a long relationship with the movie business, with several of his best-selling novels having been adapted for the big screen, such as "The World According to Garp" and "The Hotel New Hampshire". During this time, he has also been very vocal on how his books have 'cut to pieces' in the transition from page to screen, particularly with the way he 'disowned' 1998's "Simon Birch", which was 'suggested' by his "A Prayer for Owen Meany". However, in the case of "The Cider House Rules", his latest book-to-film translation, Irving has been much less vocal about how his novel has made the leap to big screen, mainly due to the fact that this time around, Irving wrote the screenplay himself. And though this somewhat predictable coming-of-age tale could have easily been trimmed by at least twenty minutes, "The Cider House Rules" turns out to be a surprisingly absorbing and thoughtful morality play.
The hero of the story is Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire of "Pleasantville"), a long-time resident of the St. Clouds Orphanage in Maine. Having been adopted and 'returned' on three separate occasions during his young life, Homer is taken under the wing of the orphanage's beloved guardian, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine of "Little Voice"), who grooms the boy as his successor, imparting much of his medical knowledge and skill. By the time Homer has reached manhood, he has become as good a doctor as Dr. Larch, lacking only the official degree. However, despite being Dr. Larch's protege, there is one area where Homer refuses to follow in his mentor's footsteps-- abortion. While Dr. Larch sees these illegal procedures as morally justified, Homer sees them as wrong and refuses to perform them under any circumstances.
Enter Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd of "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet") and his girlfriend Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron of "Mighty Joe Young"), who arrive at St. Clouds to deal with an unexpected pregnancy. During their brief stay, Homer becomes fast friends with the couple, and decides to hitch a ride with them in order to see the outside world and 'find himself'.
He ends up settling down in Wally and Candy's seaside hometown, where he eschews his medical training to pick apples on Wally's orchard. Living in the farm's cider house, Homer comes to know the apple-picking crew who includes Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo of "Ransom"), his daughter Rose Rose (singer Erykah Badu, last seen in "Blues Brothers 2000"), and the affable Peaches (rapper Heavy D, last seen in "Life"). Despite the hard work on the orchard, Homer finds himself at peace in his new environment, free from the moral morass of the medical profession. Not surprisingly, he eventually falls in love with Candy after Wally goes off to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific.
Unfortunately, Homer quickly learns that his black-and-white view of the world is not sufficient in resolving the moral dilemmas that he encounters. In addition to wrestling with the ethics of an event in the film's crucial second turning point, Homer is also urged to leave behind his relatively carefree life and return to St. Clouds, where he is being asked to succeed Dr. Larch, who is about to be removed by the Board of Directors over his controversial views and practices.
Since its release in late 1999, "The Cider House Rules" has been the target of criticism due its pro-choice treatment of the abortion issue, and it is for this reason that many audience members may be 'turned off'. Unfortunately, possessing such a viewpoint may cloud one from comprehending the film's central tenet. In essence, the issue of abortion is symbolic of the moral filter with which Homer views the world, in which there is only one way of viewing a given situation. As the story progresses, Homer learns that the use of such a narrow perspective on the world is insufficient in dealing with the complex situations that can arise, and that what may be considered illegal may also be considered ethical at the same time. He also learns that the rules of morality are not hard and fast rules, but guidelines that must be viewed in the context of a given situation-- hence the meaning behind the film's title. Furthermore, Homer comes to understand that even though the solution may be illegal or unethical, it still does not absolve him of his responsibility in solving the problem. Not since John Sayles' "Lone Star" has a film explored such themes so eloquently.
"The Cider House Rules" also gathers some impressive acting talent for its roster. Caine, who used to be the butt of jokes in the Eighties for taking any sort of role as long as it paid, does a remarkable job of bringing the benevolent Dr. Larch to life. Theron shows much aplomb as Candy with her enthusiastic and sweet performance. Lindo, whose tragic character grows increasingly complex throughout the story, acquits himself quite well. Finally, Maguire, who has become increasingly gifted over his last few films (starting with "The Ice Storm"), skillfully handles the subtle maturation of his character. Though his emoting tends towards being muted in some parts of the film, he is still able to convey Homer's amiability and emotional naïveté, creating a character that the audience can sympathize with.
"The Cider House Rules" went through a number of directors during its time in development hell before finally settling on Lasse Hallström ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape"). It seems that the long search for a director has paid off, as Hallström has done a masterful job with cast, cinematography, and score to create an emotionally resonant and visually enchanting film. In fact, aside from tighter pacing and twenty minutes that could have easily been trimmed from the script, "The Cider House Rules" is almost perfect and a testament to the talent of a director who had the dubious distinction of starting his career by directing "ABBA: The Movie".
Because of its controversial subject matter, "The Cider House Rules" is a film that may turn off potential moviegoers. This is unfortunate, since such a mindset would deny audiences of this touching, well crafted, and subtly executed morality play. And if you loved the original John Irving novel, then you'll be sure to agree that the "Cider House" rules.