So I Just Watched: “The Cider House Rules”

Fourth in a series of disorganized thoughts I am left with immediately after watching something.

Was this movie kind of a big deal when it came out or something? Product of its time, I guess. I will feel no great sadness if I never see it again.

First of all, the title… not too long ago, a friend and I were having a discussion about titling things, and how obtuseness and assumed lyricism do not often serve a potential audience’s interest. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. “The Godfather”. “Romeo & Juliet”. “The People vs. Larry Flynt”. These are your utilitarian titles. One can look at them and pretty quickly know what a story is probably going to be about.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have thematic and evocative titles that are novel and intriguing, and wind up having some greater subdermal implication to the story at large. “Cat’s Cradle”. “Gattaca”. “No Country For Old Men”. “There Will Be Blood”. “The Bad Sleep Well”.

Then you have a murky grey area in the middle, where titles are self-consciously trying to be evocative and bridging some sort of thematic/poetic gap, but falling short. “The Constant Gardener”. “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. “Secondhand Lions”. “Million Dollar Baby”. And for me, “The Cider House Rules” is there too. What are these stories about? Who knows? Plus, I can never get through without interpreting it at least once as if a Ninja Turtle is saying it… the cider house rules, dude!

It appears to have been a movie that brought attention to a lot of actors… as I watched, I kept thinking, “oh hey it’s so-and-so”. Tobey Maguire? Paul Rudd? Erykah Badu? Kieran Culkin? Erik Per Sullivan, the youngest son from “Malcolm in the Middle”, and a favorite surreal expression of efficiency! How many Eriks per Sullivan (e/s) does this car get?

In telling the story of these lives, I never felt the film really strongly connected me to the characters. It was disengaging in its presentation, like wandering through a museum of the story, stopping to look at the notable moments, read the little description, then turning away to find another. It’s even split into wings. You got the orphanage wing, the illicit romance wing, the orchard wing, and the rape/incest wing! Individual scenes may be striking or memorable, but it definitely feels like an abridged work and we’re being rushed along from one important event to the next. “First this happened, and then later this happened, and then he was looking at her butt, and then knife fight, then there was some rape and incest, and then also this. I hope you’re taking notes, because I’m pressed for time and I can’t repeat anything.”

Now, I certainly don’t fault the actors, they did fine with what they were given (well, maybe I fault Maguire, because he’s so timid and awkward and non-committal to a character that needs to have something hardened within him… some quiet core of conviction that may only manifest itself a few times, but he just seems bemused and distracted, like he snuck in to act somebody else’s part and is nervous about getting caught). No, I just have to call into question what they were given. The titular scene, where Homer (Macguire) is going over the eponymous cider house rules, then burning them, did not feel central or revelatory or thematically unifying, it just felt like another one of the pictures on the wall. Sure, there are some powerful moments I’ll remember. The aforementioned “what business are you in” knife fight scene, Arthur Rose’s stabbing-death speech, and Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) overdosing on ether, smashing the bottle on the sill by his bed, his blood and the ether intermingling as his lifespark winnows away. But again, these are all just pictures on the wall in a museum, detached from their surroundings.

Plus, the filmmakers may have been banking on the controversial nature of some subject matter to lend the production more gravity than it generates. Themes of abortion, rape and incest just don’t rattle me by their mere inclusion. The handling of these topics was so dry and inelegant that it just felt like “Intro to Mature Themes For the Mainstream”. That would’ve probably been a better title for the movie! Also, this seems to have come out in the period where the MPAA was experimenting with the idea of “artsy” nudity, a la “Titanic” a few years earlier. Come for the PG-13 rating, stay for the unflinching seconds-long shot of Theron’s entire naked backside! But it’s okay, cuz it’s art and it’s literary and it’s thought-provoking, but don’t worry because it is still also a hot naked lady ass that you get to look at.

There’s also the weird recurring motif of “lying can be used for good, and there’s no negative consequences!” I suppose it ties into the rules-burning scene, something about defining your own terms, holding some sway over your life, and whatnot. But even the cider house rules made sense, they were just poorly presented. It’s not like going onto the roof wasn’t dangerous, it was just that the rules specified a bunch of weird scenarios instead of stating it clearly. No, these cases are everyone being on board for fabricating realities, histories, and legacies, and it never bites anyone in the ass or causes anger, strife, difficulty, etc.

– This young man Homer is perfectly healthy, but he might go to war, which conflicts with my desires to mold him into a protege? Lie about it… he has a congenital heart defect! Also here’s some forged credentials to show he’d be great at taking over!

– The orphan Fuzzy S. dies of his condition? Lie about it… he was adopted actually!

– Arthur Rose rapes his own daughter, then attempts to do it again, so she stabs him and leaves him for dead? Lie about it… he was actually so distraught by her running away that he committed suicide!

But oh man, that last line, the most famous from the whole film… “Good night, you princes of Maine… you kings of New England!” Bluuuuugh. That is terrible. That is the kind of line I’d write if I were making fun of this kind of writing. And Maguire’s delivery seems to echo this sentiment. It’s like, “am I actually saying this? This is ridiculous. They’ll see right through it. Holy crap, they fell for it!”

So, though I liked seeing some of these actors in unexpected roles, the film overall did not move, compel or enthrall me. So, does the cider house rule? No, Ninja Turtle Michelangelo, you prince of the sewer, you king of anchovy marshmallow pizza. The cider house drools.

Links: Netflix Streaming / For Buying

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