You know, there's nothing really wrong with "The Cider House Rules," per se.
The story of a cusp-of-manhood orphan trying to find his place in the world is noble and interesting enough, in theory. The performances -- from such recognized talents as Michael Caine, Delroy Lindo, Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron -- are fine and fully realized.
The screenplay by John Irving, from his own book, is peppered with internal and external conflict and emotion. The snowy mountains of Maine sure look pretty, and the quiet, uncomplicated tone struck by director Lasse Hallstrom gives the film an air of simpler times gone by (it takes place in the early 1940s).
But put it all together and it just doesn't add up to much. It's unengaging -- and it's hard to say who's to blame.
It isn't Maguire (also in this week's "Ride With the Devil"), who plays Homer, a young man who grew up unwanted in an orphanage, and became the apprentice and surrogate son for the home's resident doctor (Caine). His earnest, understated performance is the heartbeat of the movie. Homer's curiosity about what the world has to offer outside the remote St. Cloud's children's home leads him to pack a suitcase and, for the first time in his life, strike out on his own.
It isn't Caine, who a few years ago rediscovered his passion for acting and started picking his roles with care and pride instead of taking anything he was offered. He's very strong as the devoted but weary, ether-addicted father figure, who wants the under-educated but medically adept Homer to replace him as the caretaker of St. Cloud's score of forgotten children.
Nor is it Theron ("Mighty Joe Young"), a soldier's girlfriend who comes to Dr. Caine for a hush-hush abortion and becomes the object of Homer's desire when she and her soon-to-ship-out army boyfriend (Paul Rudd) let Homer bum a ride with them into the greater world -- much to the doctor's chagrin.
Homer takes a job as a field-hand at an apple farm owned by the boyfriend's family, where he happily lives and works with a handful of black migrant fruit pickers led by Lindo ("Get Shorty"), a man hiding an ugly family secret. The problem isn't Lindo, either. He's as good as ever.
Hallstrom does a fine job of adding environmental and personality flourishes that give the film a certain Dickens-meets-Steinbeck air to it, as Homer and the doctor begin to exchange politely argumentative letters debating the young man's destiny.
So where does the movie fall down? I think it's in several failed key details.
Homer, of course, becomes entangled with Theron, who hangs around the orchards a lot in rolled-up jeans and pigtails, explaining "I'm not really good at being alone." But their chemistry is questionable at best, and the script seems to lose touch with their personalities. Even with all their fooling around, neither one of them ever mentions birth control, despite the way they met and Homer's strong feeling against abortion. Scenes between them play like their scripts were missing every other page.
Meanwhile back at the orphanage, Homer's mentor continues to hope he'll come home and passes our hero off to the board of directors as a qualified successor, completely overlooking the fact that once the meet him, they'll have to realize he's too young (19) to have completed medical school -- no matter what documents Caine has forged.
There's also a whole slew of nagging minor oversights -- like the fact that the leaves on all but the apple trees are brown no matter what time of year the various acts take place, and when Homer takes Candy to the movies in 1943, they see a newsreel about Jimmy Stewart enlisting in the army, an event that took place two years earlier.
Granted, I'm picking nits with that last one, but there's an underlying lack of thoroughness demonstrated here that carries throughout the picture.
Then there's this business about the "cider house rules" -- a list of dos and don'ts tacked to the wall of the pickers' living quarters. It's nothing but a meaningless metaphor, mentioned only twice, seemingly out of obligation to the title.
These individually insignificant impediments -- along with many more I didn't want to bore you with -- must be what chips away at the quality of the film, and although there's much to like about "The Cider House Rules," by the time the credits rolled the most enthusiastic reaction I could muster was little more than a shrug.