“Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”
Michael Caine’s second Oscar win came from his 1999 supporting role in The Cider House Rules, and despite delivering a solid performance I wouldn’t even rank it amongst his best work. The true standout here was Tobey Maguire who delivers a very subtle performance and is the main reason why the story works so well. I’d say it’s the best performance of his career. The film is old-fashioned (and the references to Dickens’ David Copperfield reinforce that claim even more) as it manages to capture the humanity in the story with a wonderful adaptation from John Irving of his own 1985 novel. The film isn’t afraid of tackling some moral dilemmas such as abortion and incest, and it does so without forcing a point of view on the audience. Lasse Hallstrom directs this film with his characteristic beautiful visual style although at times the melodrama can be a bit too sentimental. I felt like the film was much more similar in style to his prior film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, as it focuses on several family dynamics and various subplots in a similar way. This is also as close as a Dickens movie we will get set in America. The film isn’t perfect however and there are several relationships that feel forced, but I assume it has to do with trying to fit the most important elements of the novel into a two hour movie.
The film opens with a voiceover narration from Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) explaining how he became the orphanage director at St. Cloud, Maine. He takes special interest in a young boy named Homer Wells who is returned back to the orphanage immediately by every foster parent who attempts to adopt him. After a while it becomes evident to Dr. Larch that Homer will stay with them for a long time so he begins to teach him everything he knows about being a doctor. After several years, now Homer is a grown man (Tobey Maguire) who becomes Dr. Wilbur’s assistant in the orphanage. When Lt. Wally (Paul Rudd) and his pregnant girlfriend Candy (Charlize Theron) show up at the orphanage to have an abortion that Dr. Larch is willing to do, Homer decides it is time to explore the outside world and leaves with the young couple. Wally offers him a job at his family’s apple farm which he gladly accepts. Before heading back to war, Wally and Candy take Homer to see the ocean for the very first time and this is just the first of many first time experiences that Candy will go on to introduce him to. Meanwhile, Dr. Wilbur has hopes that Homer will return and carry on the work which he has groomed him for, but he refuses to consider himself a doctor and seems to be enjoying life picking apples and spending time with Candy.
There are a couple of strong supporting performances from Delroy Lindo as one of the men in charge of the apple picking group and Erykah Badu who plays his daughter. Jane Alexander and Kathy Baker are two of the nurses in the orphanage who work with Dr. Larch. Some of the child actors playing orphans deliver some strong scenes as Kieran Culkin, Erik Per Sullivan, and Paz de la Huerta specially stand out. My greatest complaint with the cast however is that J.K. Simmons is given absolutely nothing to do here playing Candy’s father. He seems to be only in a couple of montage scenes, but they completely misuse him. One of the strengths of the film however is that despite a shocking discovery surrounding Delroy Lindo’s character, he is never portrayed as a one dimensional character. There is some complexity to his character and he isn’t simply portrayed as a villain. On the moral dilemma surrounding the issue of abortion we have two characters with differing points of views, on the one hand Dr. Larch is very much for it, while Homer who has more faith in humanity is against it. The film may take a slightly pro abortion stand, but it doesn’t feel heavy handed considering the main issue here is Homer’s struggle to discover his own identity or follow the destiny Wilbur has traced for him.