This movie has it all. Strong actors, beautiful scenery, World War II era costumes, powerful themes of life and death, and a young man's quest to be the hero of his own life. Such potential makes it all the more disappointing when the film falls flat.
While we may smile at playful lovers or sympathise with Homer's ageing mentor Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), their stories don't sear us. Like hero Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire, Pleasantville), we yearn for a trip around the world and merely cross the state of Maine.
John Irving's adaptation of his own novel is a tale of simple pleasures: a hard day's work, helping a stranger, comforting a child. Like most Irving stories, it delves into unsavoury subjects: abortion, incest, infidelity, drug abuse. Remarkably, the characters are mostly likable, straightforward people who struggle through life trying not to make too many mistakes.
In the orphanage where Homer grew up, women came either to deliver an unwanted baby or abort an unwanted fetus. Homer rebels against performing abortions because he identifies with the foetus. Dr. Larch argues that they're helping the women avoid a more gruesome fate. Homer's struggle with and eventual resolution of this debate becomes a metaphor for the broader quest to set his own path in life, even as Dr. Larch tries to chart it for him.
Homer and Dr. Larch take turns parenting the charming urchins, who strive to look cute for each new couple who comes to adopt a child, in the film's most touching scenes. Yet Irving reveals the dark side: these children are obsessed with relationships, parents, and are sometimes violent or emotional.
Director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) sets a gentle pace and tone that seems in keeping with the innocence of the time period. Misty shots of the Maine countryside make even apple picking look good. Maguire and Theron lead an excellent cast, conveying much in a simple look.
Before Homer hitches a ride from the orphanage in the convertible of the glamorous Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd, Clueless), he's never seen a lobster, the ocean or any movie other than King Kong. While he doesn't go far, he finds the answers he's been looking for.
He gets a job in a cider house and eventually learns to ignore the list of rules tacked to the wall. You make your own rules. This beautifully made film is a pleasure to watch and feeds the intellect, though it's not especially moving.