The Cider House Rules

The cider house doesn’t just rule. The cider house ROCKS!!!

Sorry. I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. Actually, “rules” in “The Cider House Rules” is used as a noun, not a verb — as in, “the rules pertaining to the cider house.”

The titular cider house (“titular” is also a word I enjoy working into a review whenever I can) doesn’t appear until quite a ways into the film, which is based on John Irving’s novel by the way, and even then we don’t realize right away that it’s a “cider house,” specifically. We just thought it was a place where the hired help lived.

But I’m ahead of myself. The story begins in St. Cloud’s, Maine, in 1943. Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine, almost shedding his British accent, but still pronouncing “our” as “air”) is a kindly old doctor who runs an orphanage, delivers babies whose mothers plan to give them up, and performs illegal (but medically safe) abortions. Oh, and he’s addicted to ether.

He truly is a loving man, and Caine is excellent in the role as “caretaker of many, father of none.” This is no Miss Hannigan, “Annie”-style orphanage. Larch loves the boys and girls under his care, and they love him. “Good night you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England,” he says to the boys each night after reading them bedtime stories. And he means it.

The closest thing he has to a son is Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), an orphan who never got adopted and whom he has taught to be a doctor all his life. In fact, as far as Larch is concerned, Homer IS a doctor, as fully qualified as if he’d gone to medical school.

Homer, however, sees that life in an orphanage is no place for a young man, so when a young lady named Candy (Charlize Theron) comes with her boyfriend Wally (Paul Rudd) to have an abortion, he rides with them back to an apple orchard run by Wally’s family. Soon he’s picking apples for a living, and he’s just as happy as can be, especially when Wally goes off to war and Homer develops a relationship with Candy, which leads to dilemmas not a few. Larch thinks Homer is missing his true calling in life, but Homer’s happy to live in the cider house with the migrant workers.

The “cider house rules” is a list posted on the wall. None of the workers can read, so they don’t even know what the rules are. Once Homer arrives and reads them aloud, they realize they’ve been breaking every one of them, but they still don’t care: These rules were made by the orchard owners, not the people who actually have to live and work there. Sometimes in life, one has to disregard the rules because rare indeed is the rule that ALWAYS applies in EVERY situation.

That’s the recurring theme in this evenly paced, well-crafted film. Sometimes a lie is OK. Sometimes an abortion is OK. Sometimes what we’ve been taught is “right” isn’t right. Time and time again, characters in the film demonstrate this idea — gently, for the most part (though the pro-choice abortion stance is pretty flagrant), and in a way that avoids controversy. Few audience members would disagree with the characters’ actions; it’s what we would do, too.

Maguire is appealing as Homer, if not particularly deep. The film resonates well, with some truly touching moments — scenes that earn tears without jerking them. The end is perfectly satisfying, and the movie as a whole is a sweet, light-hearted, gently odd piece of fiction.

B+ (; PG-13, very brief non-sexual male nudity; a rather lengthy scene of partial female nudity; implied sex; much discussion, some of it graphic, of abortions; mild profanity..)