NAMING HIM HOMER, John Irving obviously meant the hero of his 1985 novel The Cider House Rules to be on an odyssey of sorts. Yet in handing his screenplay to Lasse Hallstr�My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape), Irving restricts both director and protagonist to the confines of his schematic, sentimental tale. Homer (Tobey Maguire) is raised in a poor-but-bucolic orphanage, schooled in medicine by the benevolent Dr. Larch (Michael Caine, effectively muffling his accent). Homer was "twice adopted, twice returned," he explains, "the everlasting orphan." So we don't miss the Dickensian poignancy, Irving also has Larch read to the boys from David Copperfield.
THE CIDER HOUSE RULES
directed by Lasse Hallstr�R>screenplay and novel by John Irving
with Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, and Charlize Theron
opens December 17 at Guild 45th
Cider House could be called a novel of ideas, in the 19th-century sense, as Irving intended. Foremost among them is abortion, which Larch performs illegally in early-'40s Maine. Homer assists, though the fetal remains he carries to the incinerator trouble him. Discussing a girl killed by a botched back-alley abortion, Larch rebukes Homer: "This is what doing nothing gets you." Thus Irving conflates the pro-choice debate with broader notions of human agency. The paternalistic Larch's credo is "be useful," while Homer opts to "wait and see" if people can take responsibility for their actions.
Outside the orphanage, he's more Candide than Homeric, an innocent who doesn't understand jokes, sex, or any movie besides King Kong—the only one he's ever seen. After a friendly WWII pilot (Paul Rudd), installs him on an apple farm, he naturally falls for the absent flyer's girlfriend, Candy (Charlize Theron). We get it—her name signals temptation! Meanwhile one of the apple pickers gets knocked up, forcing Homer into a predictable moral quandary: Use his abortion training, or let her life be destroyed. (Yet Irving places his supposed choice in a context that determines its outcome—so much for free will.) Can he save her? Can Dr. Larch lure him back to run the orphanage? You needn't have read the book to know the answers.
To his credit, Hallstr�enerally avoids the cuteness trap; he's got a gift with child actors, and shows restraint where Cider House could've turned into a tub of syrup. Simply framing Homer and Candy in a long shot, hunching their shoulders against the cold on a dock float, he achieves more genuine feeling than all Irving's tiresome, voluminous platitudes. "Sometimes you gotta break some rules to put things straight," an apple picker tells Homer, who tosses the literal cider house rules in the fire. It's a pity Hallstr�ouldn't have done the same thing with Irving's script, to possibly save his story.