Lionsgate // 1999 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 4th, 2011
A story about how far we must travel to find the place we belong.
"I know it's against the law. I ask you, what has the law ever done for this place?"
Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man) was born in an orphanage in Maine. He was adopted and then returned to the orphanage on two separate occasions. After witnessing this young man's struggle to find a home, orphanage director Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine, Get Carter) decided to take Homer under his wing and serve as his mentor. Fast-forward to the present. Homer is now a young man, and has developed into quite a proficient medical assistant. However, he and Dr. Larch have a sharp disagreement on a touchy subject: abortion (which was of course illegal in the '30s and '40s, the time period in which the film is set). Dr. Larch feels it's an option which could help many women, but Homer sternly refuses to have any part of such procedures.
The two are able to remain friends despite their arguments on the subject, but eventually Homer begins to feel it's time to leave the orphanage and start a new life for himself. He accepts a job at an apple orchard owned by the family of the kind-hearted soldier Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd, Role Models). While there, he strikes up a forbidden romance with Wally's girlfriend Candy (Charlize Theron, North Country) and makes friends with fellow workers like Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo, Heist) and his daughter Rose Rose (Erykah Badu, Blues Brothers 2000).
For whatever reason, I never got around to seeing the much-lauded drama The Cider House Rules when it was generating oodles of Oscar buzz (indeed, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Editing and Best Art Direction, along with a Best Supporting Actor win for Michael Caine and a Best Adapted Screenplay win for John Irving, who adapted his own esteemed novel for the screen). So, it was with considerable anticipation that I popped in this Blu-ray disc, eager to dig into a film I've heard nothing but positive things about in the years following the film's release.
I have to be honest with you: The Cider House Rules didn't do a whole lot for me. To be sure, it's very easy to see why the film has generated so much acclaim. It deals with some hot-button subjects (namely, abortion and incest) in a fashion which isn't too jarring to push the film outside the mainstream, it boasts an enjoyable performance from Michael Caine, offers handsome production values and demonstrates the kind of old-fashioned storytelling that has a tendency to drive academy voters wild (see also: Seabiscuit, The Green Mile, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Even so, it's the sort of old-fashioned filmmaking that feels more like a calculation than a necessity.
There's nothing inherently wrong with using an old-fashioned approach to tell a story. Sometimes it can be immensely effective: consider the manner in which the crisply old-fashioned approach of George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck enhanced that film's period feel, or the way in which the Old Hollywood Romance vibe of Brokeback Mountain worked to ease less open-minded viewers into the tale of a gay love affair. However, those films successfully avoided a trap which The Cider House Rules does not: making a period film in which the characters are all too aware that they're living in the past.
The manner in which the dialogue is written and delivered in The Cider House Rules has a flagrantly artificial air about it; it's as if these characters are stating these lines for posterity. Even the beloved recurring phrase, "Good night, you Princes of Maine...you Kings of New England," feels entirely too much like a self-aware Instant Classic Movie Line. There's something which feels very "written" about many of the exchanges throughout the film, such as the one between Homer and Dr. Larch when Homer attempts to give an X-ray image back to the doctor:
Homer: "I don't need this. I know about my condition.
Dr. Larch: "It's your heart. You ought to take it with you."
The exchange is hokey enough to begin with, but made more problematic by the fact that the actors handle that moment in a way that feels less like a quick-witted moment between friends than a reading from a clever script. It's so hard to buy anything in The Cider House Rules simply because the film works so hard to constantly remind us that we're watching a movie. Whether it's Rachel Portman's ever-swelling score (splendid on its own terms, but overkill in the film itself), the constant heart-tugging and manipulative plot developments (the eventual fates of two characters in particular feel like cynical attempts at yanking tears from viewers) or the overtly hokey performances of the actors (particularly Maguire, who manages to be both oversell his material and remain blandly monotone in the same performance), it becomes awfully hard to really lose yourself inside this world.
I have no desire to keep beating up on the flick (nor to increase the number of people who will inevitably deem this review "unfair"), but I do feel that the movie's handling of its aforementioned hot-button subjects also needs to be addressed. Though The Cider House Rules has been praised for its handling of abortion and incest, it actually proves disappointingly timid in those areas. Larch makes a few basic pro-choice arguments, Homer takes a staunchly pro-life position, and the film eventually settles into onto of those politically handy "it's acceptable, but only in cases of rape and incest" stances (let's face it, most people are firmly on one side of that argument or the other, and that response is primarily used by political candidates as a way of transforming the shouts of both sides into a quiet grumble). Speaking of which, the rape & incest material makes the crucial mistake of essentially letting the rapist off the hook; treating a character who engages in repulsive behavior with sympathy and understanding even as it condemns his actions. In most cases, that means valuable complexity. In this case, it's a terrible miscalculation.
The Cider House Rules arrives on Blu-ray sporting a decent 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. Whatever his other faults may be, director Lasse Hallstrom has always had a knack for creating attractive-looking films, and this one is no exception. Despite the talk of New England as some kind of North American hell, the period setting is lovely and the sweeping cinematography is sumptuous. Detail is quite solid throughout, and there's a natural measure of grain present which indicates a lack of any notable DNR. There are traces of edge enhancement at times, but nothing serious. Colors are warm and inviting. The audio is also high-grade, with Portman's lush score making the biggest impression. A handful of sound effects are given nice surround mixes, but this isn't exactly an action-packed track. Dialogue is never less than stellar. Supplements are borrowed from the previous DVD release: a commentary with Hallstrom, Irving and producer Richard N. Gladstein, a decent featurette called "The Cider House Rules: The Making of an American Classic" (22 minutes), some deleted scenes and a trailer.
I realize that many have been deeply moved by The Cider House Rules, and those who better appreciate the film's virtues than I will probably be pleased with this solid HD release. Even so, the film's considerable pedigree and Oscar glory doesn't prevent it from being frustratingly contrived and unpersuasive.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes