When it comes to adaptations of the sprawling, resonant novels of popular author John Irving, Hollywood doesn't exactly boast an exemplary record. "The World According to Garp," thanks to the work of Glenn Close and John Lithgow, was a dark comic triumph, but "The Hotel New Hampshire" and last year's "Simon Birch" (a gooey reworking of "A Prayer for Owen Meany") were trite and forgettable.
"The Cider House Rules," directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström ("My Life as a Dog," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), falls somewhere in the middle ground. It's a moving, slightly sentimental coming-of-age story that also takes on a controversial social issue and is helped by a variety of nuanced performances.
On the down side, the drama makes direct references to David Copperfield -- complete with a screen crammed with the sad, wide-eyed faces of orphans -- without even beginning to approach the Dickensian sweep of Irving's novel. "Cider House" is a long, somewhat absorbing odyssey that's neither as ambitious nor as emotionally moving as it wants to be.
The Dickens Lite setting is the St. Cloud's Orphanage in the Maine countryside, where dedicated Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) presides over births as well as illegal abortions. Here, during the mid-'40s, orphan lifer Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) undertakes an informal medical residency in obstetrics and gynecology, forming a filial attachment to the physician.
Larch, who in a voice-over describes himself as "the caretaker of many, the father of none," might be considered a saint, were it not for his long afternoons wasted away in the grip of ether. In an intelligent performance, Caine examines the enormous complexities of the man.
Homer's split from Larch is hastened by a philosophical disagreement. Although exposed to more than a few butchered victims of unsanitary, back-alley abortionists, Homer refuses to perform the procedure. The debate, unlike that in the novel, is muted and not quite fully explored.
The childlike, earnest, sheltered young man begins his odyssey to the world outside St. Cloud's walls thanks to a chance meeting with Air Force pilot Wally (Paul Rudd) and his pretty, outgoing girlfriend, Candy (Charlize Theron). The two, visiting the orphanage/hospital in hopes of ending a pregnancy, invite their open-faced new friend to hitch a ride. Homer promptly lodges himself in their lives, accepting a job at the apple farm owned by Wally's family and helping Candy's fisherman father.
Homer's new digs, among the orchard's African-American migrant workers, are inside the rustic Cider House. In this section the sometimes-sluggish movie is enlivened by a romance and Homer's growing friendship with his co-workers, including the imposing Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo), his troubled daughter Rose (singer Erykah Badu, in a striking debut) and the affable Peaches (Heavy D). The film's energy spikes near the end, with the onset of a provocative crisis.
Cider House's "rules" are posted on a wall and duly ignored by all. Although patronizing, those regulations zero in on the message at the heart of the film: The principles that ought to govern one's decisions are located somewhere between lofty, idealistic aspirations and the cold, hard matter of practical considerations.