May 2022

The Cider House Rules (1999)

DIRECTOR: Lasse Hallström


Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Michael Caine, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, Erykah Badu, Jane Alexander, Kathy Baker, Kate Nelligan, Kieran Culkin, Heavy D, J.K. Simmons


The Cider House Rules, based on the same-named novel by John Irving, is a low-key subdued film but one with grace and emotional depth. Labeling it an ‘abortion movie’, as some have, is an unfair oversimplification in the same way that Brokeback Mountain, another slowly-unfolding, quietly powerful drama, is pigeonholed as a ‘gay cowboy movie’. The richness and complications of the relationships among the characters defy such easy labels.

The core of Cider House is a journey of self-discovery by Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who has spent his entire life at an orphanage in St. Clouds, Maine presided over by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Best Supporting Actor Michael Caine), who despite his description of himself as caretaker of many, father of none, has taken on Homer as essentially an adopted son and protege, grooming him to be as medically skilled as himself and an eventual successor. However, while Larch will perform abortions for women who arrive at his door with unwanted pregnancies, Homer is opposed to it, and will only perform deliveries. Then there is the arrival of fighter pilot Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron), who show up wanting an abortion. Having never been beyond the insular world of St. Clouds, Homer sees an opportunity to see the world and takes it, befriending Wally and Candy and finding work as an apple picker with the migrant workers led by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) who work for Wally’s family. But the situation grows problematic when Wally goes off to WWII, and Homer and Candy fall into an affair. Meanwhile, Dr. Larch increasingly despairs that he has lost Homer to the world.

The performances are earnest and credible. Tobey Maguire (just seen last month in Ride With the Devil) gives a low-key, tightly-subdued portrayal of Homer with wide-eyed naivete and quiet dignity. Charlize Theron brings warmth and enthusiasm to Candy, and Paul Rudd has just enough screentime to establish Wally as a decent guy, making the love triangle that develops more problematic than if the simpler route had been taken of making him a one-dimensional jerk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the standout is Michael Caine, who blends humor, warmth, and a deep underlying poignancy to Dr. Larch, developing what initially seems a typical Cainean genial mentor into a surprisingly complex personality (his accent wavers from Maine to Cockney, but Caine plays Larch movingly enough for that to be ignored). Also exceptional is Delroy Lindo, doing typically solid work and fashioning a conflicted character whom we are never quite able to reconcile our feelings about. Singer Erykah Badu acquits herself admirably as Mr. Rose’s daughter, and supporting players like Jane Alexander, Kathy Baker, and Kieran Culkin are effective.

A review of The Cider House Rules would be incomplete without addressing the abortion issue. Despite author John Irving’s admission that he originally wrote the 1985 novel in an attempt to make a convincing case for abortion rights, the movie gives voice to both sides with logic and balance; it’s possible to see that he leans further toward the pro-choice side, but there is little preaching involved, and only the most strident abortion opponents would argue against the abortion carried out late in the film considering the disturbing circumstances. If there is any case of abortion most can agree is justifiable, this is one. Yet even if Irving wrote the novel as an abortion argument, the characterizations are three-dimensional enough for Cider House to avoid simply being a vehicle for its author’s views. Everyone in Cider House has their share of depth and dimension, and are confronted with some tough decisions. Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron don’t have much chemistry, at least not when their relationship stays beyond platonic, but that might be appropriate; the affair between Homer and Candy may be all but inevitable under the circumstances, but it’s an awkward fling between two lonely, mistmatched people, and doomed to failure from the start. Dr. Larch nearly always acts out of noble intentions, but his ways of going about doing what he feels needs to be done are sometimes dubious and manipulative. Rather than portraying the abuser in an incestuous relationship as we might expect, as a one-dimensional scumbag, Cider House never makes things that easy for us. The character in question has committed an unconscionable, repugnant act, but we have a hard time quite labeling him as a monster. And to keep things from getting too melancholy, there is a fair share of low-key humor, much of it stemming from the eccentric Dr. Larch or the severely sheltered Homer (St. Clouds features one movie, King Kong, which the children have viewed countless times; Homer’s verdict when he finally sees another movie, Wuthering Heights, with Candy is that ‘it’s no King Kong’).

The film’s slow, deliberate, thoughtful, low-key pace may frustrate some viewers. But within his subdued tone, Cider House generates a myriad of emotions, and there are several scenes that will leave many viewers with at least a lump in their throat. The ending is satisfying without being overly sentimental, and feels like the most appropriate conclusion instead of something cliched and melodramatic tacked on where it doesn’t fit. Rachel Portman’s score hits the right notes without calling attention to itself, and Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography beautifully captures the changing of the seasons. Perhaps most importantly, the film is content to tell its story at its own pace, not shortchanging or truncating to speed things up. It has moments of charm, humor, and deep poignancy, and by any standards, The Cider House Rules is a well-crafted, sometimes powerful motion picture that sneaks in quietly but leaves a lasting impression.