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You don’t find it depressing that Homer Wells is picking apples?

Movie

The Cider House Rules
(1999)

 

Miramax’s big Oscar contender of 1999 made its finalist appearance largely by default, after hopes for The Talented Mr Ripley bottomed out. The studio had gone great guns during the previous few years, taking both The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love to the top prize and even securing Roberto Benigni Best Actor. But suddenly, things didn’t look so bright, and the result was this: a film that put a whole new spin on the – to all intents and purposes – inconsequential nominee vying for the main award. The studio would repeat the trick to almost exactly the same effect with the same director in the form of Chocolat a year later.

Indeed, when that picture was duly considered, The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud that, in the wake of Cider HouseChocolat might merit “the much-coveted Oscar for… mediocrity”, noting how the adaptation of the John Irving novel – a “tepid adaptation” as Peter Biskind characterised it in Down and Dirty Pictures – by Irving himself, no less, “was a movie that people thought was nice, but nobody thought it was a riveting, ground-breaking picture”. Biskind’s “tepid” sums it up, with even the more daring, “button pushing” content shrouded beneath a veneer of ineffectual charm (Michael Caine’s kindly doctor performs illegal abortions; Delroy Lindo’s apple orchard foreman – its bunkhouse provides the title – is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his daughter Erykah Badu).

This is an utterly inconsequential film, from an author whose work has rarely translated well to the big screen. The elements to get behind, such as Caine’s ether-addicted, orphan-raising Dr Larch, coming on like a sub-par Robin Williams, complete with winning catchphrase (“Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England”), come across more like cynical soundbites in an Oscar campaign than anything actually affecting. Consequently, it’s even more astonishing now than it was then that this managed to get Sir Michael his second Oscar; it’s a long way from one of his great performances, as if his somewhat bereft attempts at an accent took so much effort, they robbed Larch of all vitality and personality (reputedly, his chances for Little Voice had been confounded by his desire to be put forward in the lead category – now that film provides a great Caine role).

Lindo is very good (and was reputedly miffed to have been passed over for Oscar attention). Paul Rudd and Charlize Theron make attractive wallpaper (the latter has a particular tasteful bottom-espousing tableau). Meanwhile, Tobey Maguire… It’s interesting to note he got the role of Larch’s reluctant protégée Homer Wells after “Pussy Posse” buddy DiCaprio passed, as you can imagine the different effect Leo might have had on the picture’s energy levels.

There’s something inherently passive about Maguire, meaning there’s something inherently passive about The Cider House Rules, compounded by Lasse Hallström’s taste for making inherently passive films. In Irving’s screenplay, we’re ninety minutes in before there’s anything remotely resembling a dramatic subplot (the aforementioned incest), and the need for Maguire to get his medical bag out to perform an abortion is the picture’s perverse equivalent of a slumming-it superhero forced to return to the fray once more.

Biskind records of the picture’s Oscar campaign that Miramax marketeers said “We left no stone unturned so that Harvey would be totally proud of us and that we could get as many Academy nominations as we possibly could. We worked like dogs”. They did this knowing it wasn’t all that, downplaying the abortion and drugs and up-playing the warmth. Albeit, one suspects that wouldn’t have been too hard since a good eighty percent of the picture is “warm and cuddly images”. Apparently – hard to countenance I know, given his current state of ignominy – in gratitude for their hard labour, Harvey shat all over the campaign, believing they wouldn’t muster any nominations (Cider House received seven and won two, including, ironically, for Irving’s antiseptic screenplay).

Biskind records how 1999 represented a replay of the previous year’s Miramax vs DreamWorks, but with the result going in the latter’s favour this time. You might suggest Harvey had the last laugh, given how American Beauty has received a fairly unswerving critical backlash in subsequent years, whereas The Cider House Rules remains as irrelevant as ever it was. Added to which, at least it isn’t The Shipping News.

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