[Screen It]

(1999) (Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine) (PG-13)

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Drama: After growing up in an orphanage where he assisted the resident doctor, a young man sets out to see and experience the world.
Dr. Wilbur Larch (MICHAEL CAINE) is a caring physician who runs an orphanage in St. Clouds, Maine in 1943. With the help of Nurse Edna (JANE ALEXANDER) and Nurse Angela (KATHY BAKER), Larch delivers babies from unwanted pregnancies while also performing covert and, at the time, illegal abortions for others.

His main assistant, however, is Homer Wells (TOBEY MAGUIRE), a young man who has grown up and spent his entire life at the orphanage. Despite never attending high school, let alone a medical institution, Homer helps deliver babies and cares for the other kids, including Buster (KIERAN CULKIN), Fuzzy (ERIK PER SULLIVAN), a sick little boy, and Mary Agnes (PAZ DE LA HUERTA) who has a crush on Homer. He does not, however, perform any abortions as he doesn't agree with the procedure on moral grounds.

Things change for Homer upon the arrival of Candy Kendall (CHARLIZE THERON) and her air force boyfriend, Wally Worthington (PAUL RUDD). Candy is pregnant and has arrived for an abortion, and when she and Wally leave, Homer asks if he can go with them. While no one is happy to see Homer depart, especially Larch, the young man is excited about seeing the rest of the world that lies outside the orphanage.

Despite his medical skills, Homer agrees to take an apple-picking job at an orchard run by Wally's mother, Olive Worthington (KATE NELLIGAN). There, working for the orchard boss, Mr. Rose (DELROY LINDO), Homer finds happiness working alongside Rose's daughter, Rose Rose (ERYKAH BADU), as well as migrant workers such as Peaches (HEAVY D), Jack (EVAN DEXTER PARKE) and Muddy (K. TODD FREEMAN).

Yet, with Wally now back off in the war, the friendship between Homer and Candy turns into something more. As he tries to sort out his feelings about her and the discovery of an incestuous relationship, Homer must decide about his future and whether or not it includes his previous life with Larch and the rest of the gang back at the orphanage.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Anyone who's eagerly anticipated their favorite novel's appearance on the silver screen and then had their hopes dashed by the new version of the story can tell you that few films truly capture the essence of the source novel. While any number of factors can cause that, it's basically due to the inherent characteristics and basic difference between the two forms of storytelling.

For starters, one takes place inside the reader's mind, utilizing their imagination to fill in the gaps and essentially allowing them to play director. Sometimes long and drawn out, novels can be epic adventures that take place over a span of many years or centuries and thus have the latitude to take as much time as needed to tell the story.

They also usually delve deep into the psyche of the characters, allowing the reader to more fully understand what makes them tick. Getting to know the characters on an intimate level is a novel's greatest ploy, and can easily get the reader to sympathize with their new "friends."

Films on the other hand, are a highly visualized medium where the story is told through a series of interconnected images and if done properly, can do so - at least to some degree - even with the sound turned off. While some degree of character motivation is possible, it never matches what a novel can offer. In addition, due to time and budgetary constraints, films can't take their time in telling their stories like novels do, thus necessitating an often considerable amount of truncating and editing out of characters, events and plot lines.

Thus, while it's easy to see why readers are often upset and/or disappointed by how the filmed adaptation of their favorite novel has turned out, imagine how the original author feels. Sure, they're often paid handsomely for their work, but to many it's like selling one's "baby" only to be horrified, shocked or otherwise dismayed at what the new "parents" did to their bundle of joy.

Novelist John Irving is one of those authors. While his 1978 novel, "The World According to Garp" turned out to be a good film (with Robin Williams and Glenn Close), the other filmed adaptations of "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "A Prayer For Owen Meany" (adapted as "Simon Birch") were not received as well. In fact, Irving reportedly wanted his name removed entirely from the latter one, with the final credits stating that story was "suggested by" his novel.

So, if you're an author and haven't always been particularly happy with the fashion in which other screenwriters have adapted your material, what do you do? You write the screenplay yourself and that's exactly what Irving has done for his novel "The Cider House Rules."

Named after a set of written worker rules posted in an orchard bunkhouse that no one could read until the protagonist's arrival, the novel was originally released in 1985 and featured a typical sprawling, coming of age story enveloping some darker issues, including abortion. While I never read the novel, apparently some characters and plot lines have been excised. While that usually has to occur when turning a long novel into a two hour or so movie, if anyone's upset about this adaptation, there's no one to blame but the novelist himself.

Thus, the question follows about how the film stands on its own. For the most part, it's a generally engaging and entertaining piece brimming with solid performances and an intriguing if not particularly spectacular, Dickens-like storyline. Even if one were not aware of the novel origins, however, I would imagine that many viewers would get the sense that they weren't exactly seeing the entire story.

While certain characters are fleshed out rather well, others remain in the background, seemingly wallowing in and suffering from a serious case of underdevelopment. This is particularly true in the film's second half where one gets the feeling that there's a great deal more to the orchard workers and their stories then we're allowed to see.

Again, it's difficult to truncate epic stories and many characters without whittling away important elements and dimensions, so some leeway is granted to Irving and director Lasse Hallstrom ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "My Life as a Dog") in their approach. It's just too bad, however, that the more rambling and episodic second half doesn't live up to the far better first one.

That's where we're introduced to the quirky characters and the overall set up involving Dr. Larch, brilliantly played by Michael Caine ("Little Voice," "Educating Rita") and his young protégé, near perfectly embodied by Tobey Maguire ("Ride With the Devil," "Pleasantville"). Adopting an American accent for the first time, Caine is superb in the role of a caring doctor who's far from perfect. It's too bad that his character nearly all but dries up as the story progresses.

Of course, that occurs since the film is about Homer and his coming of age "adventure" of leaving the only home he's known to see and experience the world. As played by Maguire, the character, an isolated but mature young man, is somewhat atypical for what most moviegoers are accustomed to seeing on the big screen.

Something more of a reactive instead of proactive role, the character's passive and/or reserved nature may be true to the novel and the way in which such a real character would react, but it takes a little getting used to and occasionally feels like something of a weak link amongst the major players. Even so, Maguire, who often plays that exact sort of character, is a perfect fit for the role.

Other performances are solid. Although Charlize Theron ("The Astronaut's Wife," "Mighty Joe Young") doesn't get to flex her acting muscles to any great extent, she's rarely looked more radiant on screen, while Paul Rudd ("The Object of My Affection," "Clueless") is quite good in his smaller supporting role.

Meanwhile, both Delroy Lindo ("Get Shorty," "A Life Less Ordinary") and Erykah Badu (a singer/songwriter making her acting debut) deliver strong, if not entirely pleasant performances playing a set of characters whose disturbing behavior comes out of the blue and reroutes the film onto a different, if still credible storytelling path.

Overall, the film is certainly easy to sit through, and its slow meandering ways - beyond paralleling the protagonist's course - maintain and generate a certain novel-like feel to the proceedings that often comes off as quaint and somewhat homespun.

While it's unclear how fans of the novel will react to this adaptation, most everyone else should find this to be an intriguing and generally well-told, if perhaps a bit episodic, tale of a young man's venture out into the real world. Although the moral dilemmas that arise don't always exude the necessary weight and magnitude that one would expect, and some of the characters seem lifted from the novel without enough story to accompany them, for the most part this is an entertaining, and old-fashioned feeling film. As such, "The Cider House Rules" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 23, 1999 / Posted December 17, 1999

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