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

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.