Sun, 28 May 2000

'The Cider House Rules' an uneven coming-of-age drama

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): The children at St. Cloud's orphanage really know how to "sell" themselves. Every time they find out a couple is walking through their orphanage's main hall, looking for a potential adoptee, they all line up, on their best behavior, and flash their cutest, sweetest smiles.

This little scene from The Cider House Rules is as funny as it is heartbreaking. That one scene alone, which goes for mere minutes, tells so much about what goes through the orphans' minds, what they wish for and how they must feel when the childless couple leaves with a child other than themselves.

The orphans steal the audience's hearts with their earnestness and winsomeness. The inquisitive Curly (Spencer Diamond), the sickly Fuzzy (Erik Per Sullivan) or the pensive Buster (Kieran Culkin) are each a personality that can win you over without having to be as cute or precocious as any child in Little Orphan Annie.

Yet The Cider House Rules does not tell too much about any of them. It focuses on one orphan in particular, the young man Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who has been living at St. Cloud's longer than all the other orphans without any passing couple having a keen eye on him. He was born at St. Cloud's and was named by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the orphanage supervisor, who has since become a father figure to him. A heart defect prevents him from enlisting for the war, and so he stays at the New England orphanage, lending a hand to Dr. Larch in various medical assignments performed there. He becomes the doctor's most trusted and most able assistant.

This film is mainly about how Homer takes the bold step of leaving all the comfort he has known at St. Cloud's to go out for a taste of the world. Dr. Larch tries with all his might to discourage him. "There's no helping anybody out there," he sternly warns Homer.

But Homer's mind is set. He joins an engaged young couple, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd), who stop by at the orphanage, and he ends up at the apple orchard belonging to the Kendall family. Homer gets a job as an apple-picker, working alongside a band of black migrant workers led by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo). There he experiences love, friendship, frustration and a sense of control over his own life in the period that he is away from St. Cloud's for the first time.

Author John Irving delivers this coming-of-age tale through the screenplay he adapted from his own best-selling novel. The Cider House Rules is the fourth in a string of Irving's works that have been brought to the big screen, which includes The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, which became the movie Simon Birch.

Directing the film is Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish filmmaker who is no stranger to coming-of-age stories, with his Oscar- nominated breakthrough, My Life as a Dog, and the bittersweet drama What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which starred Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio.

Even though their collaboration resulted in a film that garnered seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, and an Oscar win for Irving and a second directing nod for Hallstrom, the two men delivered a story that is too muddled to tell, in an uneven pace that is a test to the toughest audience member.

The story deals with a variety of heavy themes and topics which includes abortion and incest as well as some subjects like self-discovery and sexual awakening. It all may work in the expansive space of a novel, but feels cramped up even in a two- and-a-half-hour movie. Irving put in some nice touches, such as the endearing greeting Dr. Larch offers his orphans every night, "Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England", but neither he nor Hallstrom can evoke our sympathy for the characters with the generally dry, emotionless scenes.

The film is made more problematic with lead star Maguire's indecisiveness in presenting his role. At times he plays Homer as a wide-eyed innocent, but at other times Homer emerges from him simply like a retarded moron. "I'm in the doctor business," he declares near the end of the film, which is supposed to signify Homer's transition to adulthood, but we do not feel the urge to applaud that important moment in Homer's life.

Caine, who grabbed his second Oscar for playing Larch, is basically miscast. He can never bring the influential, paternally overbearing doctor who lurks in the pages of the screenplay. He tries hard, and as a result, we have grown to love Dr. Larch anyway, no matter how much ether he sniffs every night or whether we are pro-life or pro-choice. Even if he begins to shed some tears to portray his acute attachment to Homer as the kid leaves him, the camera always pulls away too soon, making all the efforts seem useless. Caine is always best-served by roles as nerds and pathetic losers, and that is why his performance in 1998's Little Voice, the one the Academy Awards ignored, remains his latest majestic appearance in a motion picture.