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Saturday, July 1, 2000

'CIDER HOUSE RULES'

Tears of joy and sadness


The problem with screen adaptations -- particularly if one loved the novel -- is the overwhelming sadness: The sadness of seeing a favorite big brother gone to live on the Coast and returning as someone completely different. He's no longer the heavy but funny thinker, the philosopher on roller skates. Instead, he's become the sort of person to cradle a cocktail in one hand and a blonde in the other and they're both wearing sharkskin white or something. You see this happening so many times, to so many books. If they ever decide to make a movie version of "Catcher in the Rye," this is when I leave town and head for Greenland.

So when an adaptation goes well, doing justice to both the novel and creating a distinct onscreen world, I feel like shedding a few tears in the darkness and nodding that nod of admiration. You'll find yourself doing this a lot with "The Cider House Rules," a work that blurb writers would call "bittersweet . . . beautiful . . . one of the year's best!" Or "Two thumbs up, way up!" It's the kind of movie that is likely to make you stare vacantly while rattling off one blurb after another.

What is it about "The Cider House Rules" that other adaptations don't have? Probably that all the right ingredients meshed together at the right time, like bringing together Lasse Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") as the director, Oliver Stapleton ("Kansas City") as the cinematographer and Michael Caine in a primary role. But what gives the work its special inner strength is that John Irving, on whose novel the movie is based, penned the screenplay himself. He started work on the script in 1986, and for 13 years walked the long and winding road to full cinematic realization. Ah, there's a good blurb: "Simply great . . . worth every minute of the wait."

"The Cider House Rules" fills you with longing. This is because unfulfilled longing is at the center of its gravity. Almost all the characters have wishes so strong it makes them weep, but circumstances render it impossible to grant them. Which, if you think about it, is a hard-to-find scenario in recent movies. The whole point of modern movies seems to be about total fulfillment at the snap of the fingers, and if fulfillment doesn't come running, then it's time to get a lawyer.

This story, however, is defined by a massive sadness that the characters are powerless to overcome. It's populated with orphans who dream of mothers they've never seen, apple pickers who live in the vinegar stench of cider houses, a doctor who becomes an ether addict to escape from the towering fatigue of running an abortion clinic. These are their lives at the beginning of the movie and remain so until the end.

The story's backdrop is prewar Maine, Irving's favorite storytelling locale and shot in this movie in its full glory. Hallstrom tends to choose bad weather over fair, enveloping his frames in gray, white and black, which lends the movie a classic Andrew Wyeth feel. Enhancing the mood are the overworked and stoic people, all convinced they are in this world "to be of use."

This is a stock phrase of Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) who runs St. Cloud's, an orphanage-cum-abortion clinic. Women come to him solely to abandon their children one way or another, but Dr. Larch provides every service indiscriminately and sincerely. His devoted assistants (Jane Alexander, Kathy Baker) toil at his side and turn a blind eye to his ether addiction nursed in lieu of rest.

Of all the orphans he delivered and raised, Dr. Larch has a soft spot for Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), whom he has trained as a top-notch, teenage obstetrician. But Homer refuses to perform abortions and has little pity for the patients ("They and their partners should learn to control themselves"), until one day a young couple in a snazzy car turns up.

Candy (Charlize Theron) and Wally (Paul Rudd) are local, clean-cut teenagers and obviously in love. For the first time, Homer longs for the outside world, friends his own age and a less responsible job. So he joins them and leaves St. Cloud's. Wally offers to teach him the apple business and installs him in a "cider house" along with veteran apple pickers Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu).

The novel "The Cider House Rules" spans 15 years in the life of Homer, but the movie splices the time into 15 months and concentrates on Homer's coming of age. Maguire's talents are displayed to the full. While other directors have tended to use him as a bookish nerd, here he shines as an innocent intellectual, exposed to the harshness of the world but remaining curiously untouched.

When he joins the apple crew to pluck the still-green fruit, he is (unknowingly) plucking his own unworldliness and preparing for adulthood. Lending dignity to youth, sex and labor, "The Cider House Rules" is a rare work that shows you the loftiness of adolescence. And when Homer returns to St. Cloud's with his battered suitcase, it is to a chorus of "He's back! Homer's back!" and a stampede of children's feet. If all favorite big brothers could come home this way.

"The Cider House Rules" opens today at Shibuya Hermitage and other theaters.


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