Skip to main content

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

The Cider House Rules
(1999)

(SPOILERS) 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 a year later in the form of Chocolat.

Indeed, when that picture was duly considered, The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud that, in the wake of Cider House, Chocolat 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 (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) shrouded beneath a veneer of ineffectual charm.

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, as it’s a long way from one of his great performances (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), as if his somewhat bereft attempts at an accent took so much effort, they robbed Larch of all vitality and personality.

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), while Tobey Maguire… It’s interesting to note he got the role of Larch's reluctant protégée Homer Wells after “Pussy Posse” best 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 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”. This, knowing it wasn’t all that, and downplaying the abortion and drugs and up-playing the warmth – although, 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 undergone a fairly unswerving critical backlash in subsequent years, whereas The Cider House Rules remains as irrelevant as ever it was. Still, at least it isn’t The Shipping News.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.