IN "THE CIDER HOUSE RULES," a sensitive but not overly sentimental adaptation of John Irving's lengthy 1985 novel of moral ambiguity from Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom and screenwriter Irving, the good guy doesn't wear a white cowboy hat but a white lab coat. And he performs illegal abortions.

That would be Wilbur Larch, M.D., played by the great Michael Caine doing his first American accent. Proprietor of a jerkwater orphanage in St. Cloud's, Maine, and father figure to a brood of dozens of wide-eyed tykes with names like Fuzzy, Curly and Buster just waiting to be taken in by some loving family, Larch is also the savior of women in trouble, women who come to him either to have their unwanted pregnancies delivered or terminated -- operations which he performs with equal equanimity.

In truth, Larch's status as good guy is compromised by more than his willingness to break the pre-Roe v. Wade law (it's 1943 after all). There's also the fact that he sniffs ether on a regular basis, probably as much to numb his conflicted conscience about all the fetuses he has sent to the incinerator as to help him sleep after exhausting days playing paterfamilias to a house full of orphans.

Homer Wells (the wonderfully laconic Tobey Maguire) is Larch's protege, a young man whose failure to be adopted has left him in the reluctant roles of the son Larch never had and an obstetrician-in-training. Although Homer has no medical degree and won't perform abortions on principle, Larch is grooming him to be his replacement at St. Cloud's, but the pair's philosophical divide, along with Homer's nascent wanderlust, impels the kid to hitch a ride out of town with Wally (Paul Rudd) and Candy (Charlize Theron), an unmarried couple who has just had their little problem taken care of by the good doctor.

While Wally goes off to fight Tojo, Homer, whose defective ticker (Warning: Irvingesque metaphor alert!) has kept him out of military service, takes a job as a picker in Wally's family apple orchard. But apples aren't the only fruit plucked when Candy introduces him to sex. . Other, more horrifying taboos are soon being violated by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo), the decent-at-heart picking crew foreman whose dark secret forces Homer to reevaluate his own values.

What's wonderful about this "Cider" is not just its cast of impeccable actors -- it also features singer Erykah Badu as Mr. Rose's troubled daughter, Rose -- but its complex bouquet of ethical paradoxes. It's more than just a story about a boy on the brink of adulthood attempting to deny (or define) his destiny, it's also an examination of the contradictions that shape our often expedient sense of right and wrong.

Hallstrom and Irving's film is more honest than any conventional morality tale. Here there are no heroes and no real villains; the good guys are all flawed and even bad guys are sometimes capable of the noblest of acts. As Larch himself puts it, "Sometimes you've got to break some rules to put things straight."

THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (PG-13, 129 minutes) -- Contains nudity, a sexual encounter, bloody wounds and discussion of abortion. Area theaters.