‘The Cider House Rules’ Remains a Stirring Actor Showcase

I remember hating Michael Caine, even if I never really understood where that hatred came from. Perhaps it was the slew of bizarre role choices taken by the actor (looking at you Jaws: the Revenge), or maybe it was watching him play the same character time and again in numerous mediocre films, namely Miss Congeniality and 2000’s Get Carter remake. Long story short: the guy bugged me the way mathematics bug English majors.

Then I saw Lasse Hallstrom’s The Cider House Rules, and from that day onCaine became something of a novelty in the Ames household; a status the ’60s icon has retained during his spectacular ’00s run. By the time Caine appeared for a brief cameo in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), my reaction was merely thus: “I like that guy,” an effect brought on largely due to his absolutely indelible performance in The Cider House Rules.

As a film, Hallstrom’s deep-rooted tear jerker doesn’t exactly work. Based on John Irving’s 1985 novel of the same name, The Cider House Rules is one of those coming-of-age stories in which a reluctant hero journeys abroad and discovers the true meaning of his existence. Said hero is Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), a young man first seen working in an orphanage under the esteemed Dr. Wilbur Larch (Caine). The duo specialize in abortions, performing the grisly operation before dumping the fetuses into an outside furnace.

Homer yearns for a greater life, and eventually splits the orphanage in hopes of seeing the world. Except, he takes a job picking apples on an orchard farm — not exactly a game changer if you ask me — and indulges in a torrid affair with the lovely Candy Kendall (a terrific Charlize Theron). Along the way he learns valuable life lessons and slowly comes to terms with his inner-self.

Part of the problem with The Cider House Rules are the overt points it sets out to make. No matter your feelings on the subject of abortion, Hallstrom and company give you little choice but to favor their point of view. Except, by the time the film ends nothing much has happened. At least not enough to warrant the bloated 126-minute running time. I liked the characters, identified with them, but wanted to see them participate in additional meaningful activities.

Truth be told, the only story that truly captured my interest was Dr. Larch’s (Michael Caine). As the honorable Dr. Larch, Caine injects humanity, wisdom and vulnerability. His story provides unique complications in that he is a man more or less riddled with guilt, stuck in a situation he cannot escape. He represents Homer’s future, which is precisely why the ending didn’t strike me as ringing true.

Despite my reservations, The Cider House Rules carries solid production qualities. Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography bathes the film in golden hues. Rachel Portman’s music soars. The cast sparkles in roles big and small. I touched on Caine’s performance, but even he must work hard to keep up with Maguire and Theron.

Maguire in particular perfectly embodies Homer, what with his exasperated expressions and wide gaping eyes reacting profusely to the happenings around him. The actor looks slightly ajar during his romantic entanglements with Theron, as the actress appears a tad too stunning for his scanty presence, but then again Irving never intended Homer as anything more than a wide-eyed, if not innocuous, young man. Look out for Delroy Lindo in a powerful bit as a migrant worker harboring more than one deep-seeded secret; blink and you’ll miss Paul Rudd’s turn as Candy’s do-well husband in arms.

That’s a spectacular cast, one in need of weightier material. By my reckoning, The Cider House Rules tells the story of a young man who doesn’t like to perform abortions. His trip to the real world convinces him otherwise, and so he returns home. At least now I like Michael Caine.

For the Blu-ray release, Hallstrom and company provide a nice commentary track that delves into the tricky process of adapting Irving’s novel to the big screen (hint: it helps to have the book’s author adapting the screenplay). They also touch on the film’s production, but spend a tad too much time complimenting each other for the film’s success. Personally, commentaries don’t really do it for me. I’d much rather have some in-depth, on location material in place of two voices ruminating on a film shoot that happened over ten years ago. As such, the remaining special features didn’t blow my mind since they merely skid across the film’s surface. We get numerous bits with Maguire talking about the movie, but nothing that makes you feel The Cider House Rules was anything more than a gig for a paycheck, for him.

Still, the image quality looks quite spectacular for a film released ten years ago. I don’t much pay attention to audio for a film lacking explosives and special FX, but I will say that Rachel Portman’s amazing score radiated through my 5.1 system with splendid clarity. Overall, The Cider House Rules remains an engaging watch, if only for the performances.

RATING 6 / 10