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The Cider House Rules   D

Miramax Films

Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Lasse Hallstršm
Writer: John Irving (based on his novel)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, Michael Caine, Jane Alexander, Kathy Baker, Kieran Culkin, Kate Nelligan, Heavy D, K. Todd Freeman, Spencer Diamond, Paz de la Heurta, Erykah Badu, J.K. Simmons.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Ever notice that Oscar has no balls?"
--Peter Travers

Once again, the chuzzlewits at the Motion Picture Academy have placed in their show stable a genuine piece of crow bait. I'm not talking about the justly-praised American Beauty or the more modest but still engaging Sixth Sense. The Cider House Rules, a baggy, obtuse wreck of a film, has been nominated for seven Academy Awards. And if the fortunes are absent that dark day in March, it may just walk off with the Best Picture Oscar.

It's rural Maine at the height of World War II, and Homer Wells (Toby Maguire) has a problem. He's spent all his life in the orphanage where he grew up, tutored by the kindly Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) and surrounded by tousle-headed scamps with names like Buster and Curley (I am not making this up). Lately, he's grown restless; he's never seen the outside world and everything he knows he's learned from Dr. Larch. He lacks people his own age to be around, and has moral reservations about Dr. Larch's willingness to perform abortions on those who ask. So when fresh-faced pilot Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) and his knocked-up girlfriend Candy (Charlize Theron) show up to make their little problem go away, he asks to go with them -- and see, at long last, the world beyond his door.

What follows is a meandering, self-indulgent journey as Homer learns some of life's most hackneyed lessons. He learns about temptation when the pilot goes off to war and his girlfriend gets lonely. He learns about racism while picking apples at the Worthington farm along with migrant black workers. He learns about the horrors or war when Wally's plane gets shot down in the jungle. And he learns that values in his sleepy little orphanage don't mean the same thing in the cold hard world. Oh yeah, and he has sex.

If this sounds like a laundry list of half-developed plot complications, that's exactly how it plays. The film shambles along with little coherence or unity, mumbling half-hearted observations about life and disgorging flaccid themes that would embarrass a high-school sophomore. "Racism is bad." "Women have rights." "War can hurt people." Hardly the bolting, cutting stance we should expect from a Best Picture contender. Even the abortion issue lacks punch -- when Homer is called upon to put his beliefs to the test, it involves a case that all but the most ardent abortion foes would side with. Ironically, while it's quick to trumpet these amorphous values, it achieves a quiet moral repugnancy as we learn what Dr. Larch has done for Homer sake and are asked to applaud his efforts.

The cast does as well as they can with this shaggy dog. Maguire lends Homer a quiet strength and Charlize Theron gives Candy the right amount of thoughtfulness. The notable exception is Caine, whose mealy-mouthed accent jars the viewer with artifice every time he speaks. Naturally, he's the picture's lone acting nominee.

No, responsibility for the film lies mainly in director Lasse Hallstršm, and John Irving, who adapted the movie from his bestselling book. Both men have had significant artistic triumphs in the past, and both seem willing to coast on their accolades here. Irving refuses to abandon even the most insignificant idea, while Hallstršm's delicate touch keeps the picture from achieving any real conviction. The result is a turgid mess of Dickensian stereotypes, false sentimentality, and apolitical sermons limping painfully along before being abandoned.

And yet here it perches, a turkey among eagles, amid the medium's most prestigious showcase. Miramax Films, which produced The Cider House Rules, is notorious for it's Oscar pimping, and seems geared to give this one a big fat ad budget to work its will on Academy voters. Judging by the nominations it's received, they've gone too far already. Cider House Rules may walk away with a lion's share of Oscars, but it's hard to believe that an embarrassment like this thing will be remembered for anything other than its own mediocrity.

Review published 03.17.2000.

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