Cute orphan children, the lovely Maine countryside, an earnest Tobey Maguire, and a naked Charlize Theron yup, looks like another nostalgic coming of age movie. But one thing you won't see in the gauzy, gentle ads for The Cider House Rules is the fact that it's one of the most unabashedly pro-abortion movies made in the last 20 years. While that may not be the wisest selling point, it is nevertheless the most notable feature of this rather underplayed adaptation of the John Irving novel. Well acted and lovely to look at, The Cider House Rules never quite matches the drama of its subject matter.
Of course, that's been the bane of all filmmakers who've tried to adapt Irving's works to the screen. His novels are expansive affairs randomly populated with colorful characters whose stories branch off into unexpected tangents, amazing coincidences, and sudden tragedies. As entertaining and humanistic as these tales are, they don't make for easy adaptations. The World According to Garp was humorous yet jumbled. The Hotel New Hampshire was just plain jumbled. And Simon Birch, "suggested by" A Prayer for Owen Meaney, was a treacley jumble. Irving has disowned these works (and writes about his disappointment in My Movie Business: A Memoir), and furthermore took on the job of writing the script for The Cider House Rules himself with the intention of getting it right. Well, he doesn't. It may be the best effort yet at trying to capture that Irving literary mix of quirk crossed with fate wrapped in a social message, but The Cider House Rules inevitably becomes something of a mish-mosh itself, never quite finding its narrative focus.
Some of the blame might also reside in the direction of Lasse Hallström, the Swedish filmmaker who captured Hollywood's interest with 1985's My Life As a Dog, which afforded him the opportunity to make pleasing, middle-of-the-road fare like What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and Something to Talk About. He's forged for himself a respectable, tasteful Hollywood careerbut not exactly a memorable one. His reputation for warmhearted poignancy and offbeat characters would seemingly make him the perfect director for a John Irving novel, and with The Cider House Rules he gathers around him an impeccable cast, a nicely rendered period setting (30s and 40s New England), and an ever-burning social issue. But the movie he crafts is so amiably meandering, its story's impact becomes diffuse. He never seems willing to work his actors into much of a dramatic froth, particularly lead star Tobey Maguire whose character appears unmoved by darn near everything that happens to him. How can you come of age in a movie without expressing extreme emotions?
The story gives him plenty of opportunities to change his facial expressions, though. Maguire plays Homer Wells, a teenage orphan who has lived his entire life at the St. Cloud's orphanage. His ersatz father figure is the institute's director, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine in his best performance in years), an eccentric man who delivers babies and performs illegal abortions with equal fervor. While he has trained Homer in all his techniques, Homer refuses to perform the procedure that Dr. Larch believes is a woman's right. Finally, when a young couple (Theron and Paul Rudd) drop in for an abortion, Homer makes the sudden decision to leave with them to see the outside world (though the movie never really shows us whether this is momentous for himone moment he's helping out the doctor, the next he's packing his things without so much as a pause).
What follows is The Cider House Rules' coming of age part, which (I suppose) is the main point of the movie. Homer falls in love with Theron's lonely lobsterman's daughter (sorryshe has no other distinguishing characteristics, though Theron works well with what she's given). He gets a job on an apple farm and joins a team of migrant black workers. He gets letters from Dr. Larch asking him to return and replace him as director. And then he must make a moral decision about whether to give an abortion to a woman who has been impregnated under repugnant circumstances. Throughout, Maguire remains steadfastly earnest with a tight little smile on his face; perhaps the theory was that a boy having grown up in a sheltered existence wouldn't know how to react to things he's never faced before. This works when Homer sees his first drive-in theater. It doesn't when he must confront incest.
Meanwhile, Hallström intersperses scenes featuring the cutest, most heartbreaking orphans you'll ever see. The child actors are wonderful, and costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus has perfectly replicated that Depression-era grungy orphan look you see in old photos. But it's telling that The Cider House Rules' most emotional and moving scenes are also its most blatantly manipulative. While it delivers its pro-abortion message in no uncertain terms (pay attention to the source of its title), it fails to fully develop the human stories around that message.