I remember one time when I was watching television, I began wondering just why the stories are so far removed from real life. Obviously, television isn't supposed to be exactly like reality. If it were, there would be no need to watch it, since we get reality just by living! The same thing goes for fiction books and movies.
Even so, it is odd when a "realistic" movie (as opposed to a science fiction or fantasy film) is so far removed from real life. For example, the secretaries in Movieland all tend to live in beautiful apartments that few real secretaries could actually afford. (One film that cleverly demonstrated this difference between real life and life in the world of movies was "The Last Action Hero," a movie with a great idea but poor development, resulting in a film that could have been great but wasn't.)
I think that the main reason that even "realistic" films must take such a drastic departure from reality is a little something that anyone who has passed high school English already knows: a good story needs a conflict of some sort. The problem, of course, is that most people's lives tend to be devoid of the kind of conflict that makes movies interesting.
Which brings me to "The Cider House Rules." When I heard that it was about an orphanage during World War II, I figured that there would be a cruel adult in charge of the facility who mistreats the cute and cuddly orphans - basically, something along the lines of Oliver Twist or "Annie." This despite the fact that most orphanages were good places for children, certainly better than the system of foster care in place today. (Indeed, I have never understood how bouncing children around from foster home to foster home is supposed to be better than giving them the stability of living in a single facility until they get adopted!) But since orphanages were generally good places, it would be hard to make a movie about them without departing from reality a bit and adding in some kind of conflict.
As it turns out, "The Cider House Rules" pleasantly surprised me. This movie not only gives us a realistic depiction of an orphanage as a nurturing and caring environment, but does so in a remarkably entertaining way. The conflict is not in the orphanage but rather in the world outside. The film is based on a book by the great American novelist John Irving; Irving himself wrote the screen adaptation of his book. Although I have not yet had the pleasure of reading the book, what I saw on the screen very much impressed me.
As the movie opens, we meet Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), a kind-hearted doctor who tells us that he came to work at the orphanage because he wanted to be a hero, but he soon realized that there are no heroes in orphanages. This sentiment notwithstanding, a hero is exactly what Dr. Larch turns out to be.
Dr. Larch does not merely take care of the daily medical needs of the orphans. He also arranges the adoptions and acts as an obstetrician for "accidentally" pregnant women who come to the orphanage to leave a baby behind. In addition, he performs abortions (illegally) for women unwilling to go through with the pregnancy.
One special orphan comes into Dr. Larch's life at birth. The orphan is given the name Homer Wells (played for most of the movie by Tobey Maguire). Like the other orphans, the orphanage attempts to adopt Homer out. He is returned by at least two couples. So, Homer grows up at the orphanage, and Dr. Larch becomes the major father figure in Homer's life. Larch teaches Homer everything he knows about medicine and, eventually, Homer is performing surgeries himself; for all intents and purposes, Homer is a young medical doctor. (I was reminded of Doogie Houser, the child doctor from a popular television series a number of years ago.)
The years go by, and Homer, though an orphan himself, functions essentially as a staff member at the orphanage. One day, Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) - a soldier on leave - and his "accidentally" pregnant girlfriend, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) come to the orphanage to terminate the pregnancy. The abortion is performed, and Wally and Candy get ready to leave. Homer, now a young man too old to be adopted but still a bit young to be considered an adult, decides that now is the time to leave the orphanage and go see the world outside. As a result, he leaves with Wally and Candy. His send-off is similar to scenes in other movies when a young man first leaves home to go see the world, and the whole family, tears and all, comes out to say goodbye and wish him luck.
Homer ends up working for Wally's family as an apple picker. Although Homer might seem a bit overqualified to be doing manual labor, this is exactly what he wants to do. Indeed, except for Wally and Candy, no one knows that Homer is really a "doctor." Homer quickly settles into his new life, living in a "cider house" with the other apple pickers, including Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu). Soon, Wally is sent back to Asia to continue fighting in the War, giving Homer and Candy the chance to strike a bit of a relationship behind Wally's back.
In the meantime, back at the orphanage, the regulators are considering getting an "assistant" for Dr. Larch (i.e., replacing him). Larch believes that any doctor who replaces him would be terrible for the orphans. Except for one doctor: the great Dr. Homer Wells. There are, of course, a few problems. First of all, Wells isn't a doctor. Also, he is a bit young. Both of these problems are easily resolved by creating counterfeit documents, a feat that was a lot less difficult to accomplish in the days before magnetic stripes and holograms. The second problem is that the board has a tendency to disapprove of anyone whom Dr. Larch approves of. Larch solves this problem by using a little reverse psychology, telling the board how terrible Wells is. The plan works perfectly.
Now there is one final problem: Homer is very happy in his new life as an apple picker. Is there any way that he can be convinced to return to the orphanage and take over as its resident "doctor?"
Because the film has a few depictions of controversial material - such as abortions, rape, and incest - I would not recommend it for younger viewers. However, for older viewers, I highly recommend this heart-warming story about heroes, love, and moral choices.