"Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England", softly utters Dr. Wilbur Larsh (Michael Caine) every evening before the children go to sleep, for he is the caretaker and father figure of an orphanage in the Maine countryside. Women experiencing unwanted pregnancies come to him for help, and so he does, delivering discreetly their babies and raising them on the premises until they're adopted by a family. Yet sometimes kids grow up in the orphanage without finding a home. Such is the case of Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), a bright-eyed boy whom Dr. Larsh takes under his tutelage, teaching him all he knows about medicine and turning him into a talented, if unlicensed, physician
But as Homer becomes a man, he feels the need to "see the world", to experience the world outside the orphanage. And so begins the sweet, touching coming-of-age story that is The Cider House Rules, based on the John Irving novel which he adapted himself. Irving is certainly a gifted storyteller with an ear for dialogue, and he brings intelligence to what could have been a corny melodrama. Sure, the film remains sentimental and conventional, with Homer falling in love with a too good to be true girl whose boyfriend (Paul Rudd) is gone to war (the film is set in 1942), and bonding with the friendly Afro-Americans (notably Delroy Lindo, rapper Heavy D and singer Erykah Badu) who work with him picking apple and making cider. Yet Irving also works very serious issues such as incest and the abortion debate into his tale. I liked the way these hard things were handled, as Irving shows both sides of situations.
And then again, the film's old-fashioned Hollywood sensibility isn't such a bad thing. Lasse Hallstrom's direction is warm and effective. The cinematography is gorgeous, making the Maine landscape -and Charlize Theron's bare tushy- look breath-taking. The score is on the sweeping, ever-present side, but it gets the job done at underlining the emotional core of each scene. As for the acting, you could hardly ask for more than the endearing performances delivered by Maguire, Caine and Theron. "The Cider House Rules" is a well thought out, well crafted piece of filmmaking. It doesn't break anything, but it doesn't have to. I smiled a lot, sometimes had misty eyes and never lost interest. It's not a Great film per se (all those Oscar noms should have gone to "Magnolia"), but it remains a very nice little picture.