Loosely adapted from John Irving’s tedious novel — and recently nominated for seven Academy Awards — this uneven and ultimately unsatisfying drama provided Michael Caine with a few good lines but not a truly challenging role. If anyone in this movie should have been nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role it’s Delroy Lindo, who, as Mr. Rose, paradoxically infused a despicable, almost throw away character with great dignity.
Michael Caine plays Dr. Wilbur Larch, an ether-addicted physician who operates an orphanage-based pediatric and illegal abortion clinic during the ‘40s. In one breath he pronounces the abandoned children “Princes of Maine…Kings of New England,” but under his breath criticizes their mothers for not aborting them. One of the boys, Homer (Tobey Maguire), shows great promise and is trained to follow in the doctor’s footsteps. He has his own ideas, though, about the fetuses being burned in the incinerator. One day he impulsively leaves with Candy (Charlize Theron), who’s just had an abortion at the clinic, and her boyfriend, Wally. He becomes an apple picker.
The movie’s engaging tone changes dramatically once Homer shakes the orphanage’s dust from his shoes, and the institution’s wonderfully beguiling characters are sacrificed to an agenda-boosting subplot. Homer begins a sexual relationship with Candy and they romp seemingly without birth control in the migrant workers’ shack known as the Cider House. The next pregnancy — wait for it — is a product of incest: Mr. Rose, the African-American crew boss, has done the wild thing with his sweet daughter.
This shameless catalyst — which shocks Homer into performing an abortion and returning to the orphanage to follow in his mentor’s footsteps — is so obviously gratuitous that it’s without merit. Also, homely Homer’s relationship with the knockout Candy — who loves her boyfriend, Wally, but has “a problem being alone” — is so incongruous that it’s an annoying curiosity. Wally, who’s been serving in the war, returns paralyzed and Candy rushes to his wheelchair as if nothing has changed.
The movie’s underlying premise is that rules are meant to be broken. The creators of this movie forgot two important precepts: the characters need to be believable — if not likable.
(Rated PG-13: bloody violence; female nudity & sexual situations. Reviewed 3-7-2000.)
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published March 21, 2000 by The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition.)