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The Cider House Rules

A Maine Odyssey

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Lasse HallstrÖm

Written by John Irving, based on his novel

With Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine , Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Erykah Badu, Kieran Culkin, Paul Rudd

I have to give it to Hollywood studios: once in a while, their pervasive habit of glossing over any complex or potentially painful material can work as a viable artistic choice, focusing the viewers’ attention on elements of the story that could have gone unnoticed.

Take The Cider House Rules: the original John Irving novel deals, mainly, with abortion, in a rather graphic and disturbing manner. The film version (adapted by Irving himself, compressing the novel’s fifteen year storyline by about a factor of ten) still has abortion as one of its main plot elements. In the rather genteel film adaptation, this element ends up being glossed over, in typical Hollywood fashion, and instead of being an incendiary topic becomes merely a plot point. But because of this, some other elements of the story come to the foreground, and, surprisingly, end up being perfectly compelling in their own right.

The Cider House Rules is the story of Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), a boy from an orphanage in St. Cloud, Maine. Since no one wants to adopt him, Homer stays at the orphanage until he grows up, becoming a sort of a second-in-command to Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the institution’s overseer. Eventually, Homer starts to wonder what is out there, beyond the gates of the house where he spent all his life, and soon he takes action to venture out.

First and foremost: you can not name the story’s protagonist Homer without practically establishing that the story will go in either of two directions. Since it’s quite clear this Homer isn’t much of a storyteller, it becomes obvious very soon that the entire narrative is going to be modeled after Iliad and/or The Odyssey; we get both, as a matter of fact. The film’s first half is set in one place, with the increasingly urgent motif of moving beyond the constraining walls -- and the second half is the journey in the whole wild world, or, in this particular case, Maine.

The downside is that the story, on a large scale, is mostly devoid of any kind of suspense. Add the fact that director Lasse HallstrÖm’s work is solid, careful, and perfectly uninventive -- and you get a film ending that is perfectly obvious, oh, about half an hour into the movie, complete with the knowledge of who says the closing line, under what circumstances and, what this closing line is. The avoidance of “big” things like explosive issues and suspensive plot, whether it was intentional or not (I suspect not), serves to highlight one thing: on the level of small details and understated moments, The Cider House Rules is remarkably engrossing, exciting, and fast-paced. It even feels short, much shorter than the two-hours-plus running time.

Most importantly, it is anchored by three remarkable performances. There’s Tobey Maguire, always drawing attention even when he’s playing a shrinking violet. He is squarely the center of the narrative -- basically, The Cider House Rules is about him growing up -- but despite all the necessary clichÉs of coming-of-age stories (first job, first romantic encounter, first riff with the parental figure), it feels remarkably fresh, mostly because of Maquire’s unmannered take on Homer.

The second great performance comes from Charlize Theron, who keeps proving she’s the one to watch for, ever since she out-acted Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. Here, her Candy Kendall is more that just eye-candy (first name notwithstanding). Theron takes what would have been a standard suffering girlfriend role and imbues it with depth and conviction.

The third remarkable performance is Kieran Culkin’s, the younger brother of you-know-who. Culkin’s character, Buster, doesn’t really have much to do with the story, so he’s content just to be there, adding a welcome dose of humor and authenticity to the world of Cider House.

The one who disappoints is Michael Caine. Burdened with an unstable American accent and given the part heavy on pronouncements, there’s little feeling of the human being behind the faÇade, despite all the emotional events that Dr. Larch goes through.

Most welcome is the general feeling of empathy; since the potentially grisly details are being glossed over, the resulting story has just enough particulars and enough generalities to describe something all of us must have gone through at a certain time. The Cider House Rules ends up feeling less like a Homeric epic and more like a Norman Rockwell painting: hardly great art or even art at all, but something with instantly recognizable humanity and an emotional impact that can hardly be ignored.