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*** 1/2
STARRING: Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, Delroy Lindo, Erykah Badu and Charlize Theron.
DIRECTOR: Lasse Hallstrom.
RATING: R for rough language and sex.
RUNNING TIME: To be determined
THE LOWDOWN: The first John Irving novel to be adapted for the screen by Irving himself -- about an orphanage run by a kindly, drug-addicted abortion-provider and his favorite orphan.

"I had hoped to become a hero" says the accidentally heroic Dr. Larch. "In St. Cloud's there was no such position." St. Cloud's is a Maine orphanage where Larch discovers that "being successful can't hold a candle to being of use," a place where "we don't regard the sordid facts of life as problems." So he is, matter-of-factly, an abortion provider for the young women of the region. The movie is Lasse Hallstrom's little exercise in New England benevolence, "The Cider House Rules." There is something special going on here. It is the first movie to be made from a John Irving novel that boasts a script by Irving himself. Writers who adapt their novels to the movies are like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy's football. Irving himself is, God help us, our times' Dickens. That is, he writes compulsively readable, realistic novels that teem with character, comedy, class struggle, social progressivism, grotesquery and cliched sentimentality. His books, as often as not, have "hooks" the way hit records do. Instead of Dickensian genius, Irving gives us preppie reassurance. Even so, he can be an enthralling storyteller and he hasn't deserved what movies have made of his books. It took 13 years to get from a reading of his own script for "The Cider House Rules" in Paul Newman's living room to moviehouses. In the meantime, its original director, Philip Borsos, died. Somewhat amazingly, that superb actor Delroy Lindo takes the same part in the film that he did in that living room reading. It's heartening, finally, to see an Irving novel on the screen the way the author himself would have it. (It's a good thing when Charlie Brown actually gets to kick the football.) It didn't hurt that his director was Lasse Hallstrom, director of the wonderful "My Life as a Dog," one of the great films about children of the last 15 years. Nor does it hurt that, as Dr. Larch, a secular saint addicted to whiffing ether, he has Michael Caine in a role full of bemused benevolence and oh-so-quiet New England desperation. (Larch reads the boys at the orphanage hair-raising passages from Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and then leaves them to their night thoughts with "Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England." They go to sleep pacified.) Or that, as one of Dr. Larch's patients, he has Charlize Theron, the stunning beauty who is even better when she has a role that unleashes her talent (at one point, our hero in "The Cider House Rules" observes that she's so lovely it almost hurts to look at her. And so it does.) As Larch's protege Homer Wells, he has Tobey Maguire, a Raggedy Andy doll of an actor for whom the main narrative line of "The Cider House Rules" serves as a coming-of-age drama. It is Larch's desire that Homer take up his practice, abortions and all, and his life. He recognizes a kinship in Homer's slightly frayed saintliness. Homer, though, goes off on his own -- to pick apples and make cider and live with the black migrant workers. It's there, in the cider house, that he discovers rules put there in some indefinite past to serve a radically altered present and an inconceivable future. They are outdated. Homer's long struggle to figure out life's real "rules" is what the tale is about -- his guilty love of Theron, his intervention in the gruesome relationship of Mr. Rose (Lindo) and his daughter (Erykah Badu). While everyone else in "The Cider House Rules" performs up to an expected lovel, it is R&B queen Badu who is something of a revelation here. If the past five years have revealed anything, it's how intriguingly short sometimes in the MTV era the distance from rock stardom to powerful film-acting is (think of Steven Van Zandt in HBO's "The Sopranos," Courtney Love in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," Sheryl Crow in the little-seen and otherwise negligible independent film "The Minus Man"). Along with everyone else involved in "The Cider House Rules," she has a right to be happy how the film came out.

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