What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Screenplay : Peter Hedges (based on his novel)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1993
Stars : Johnny Depp (Gilbert Grape), Leonardo DiCaprio (Arnie Grape), Juliette Lewis (Becky), Mary Steenburgen (Betty Carver), Darlene Cates (Momma), Laura Harrington (Amy Grape), Mary Kate Schellhardt (Ellen Grape)
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is a wonderfully rambling film that relies wholly on its characters to see it through to the end. There's no elaborate plot structure, and the only central conflict is general angst and unrest. Therefore, it is up to the main characters of the small town of Endora, Iowa to create a meaningful existence on-screen.
The film feels like Peter Bogdonavich's "The Last Picture Show," in the town's backward sleepiness, and the central character's unresolved restlessness. It creates a real sense of life, which everybody knows is often plodding and mundane, even when it feels like the world is about to strangle you.
Which is exactly how Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) feels. In his mid-twenties and saddled with responsibility for his family, Gilbert is trapped in the dying, small town world of Endora, a place he compares to dancing without music. He works at the local grocery store and frequently indulges in an affair with the local insurance salesman's wife (Mary Steenburgen), but he wants more. Of course, he could get in his old truck and leave at any time, but that would mean dropping the responsibilities left to him when his father committed suicide seventeen years earlier. He could get away, but that would be dishonorable.
Among his responsibilities, first and foremost is his mother (Darlene Cates). Once the most beautiful girl in the region, she is now a horribly obese woman who hasn't left the house in seven years. Then there's his seventeen-year-old retarded brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who must be constantly watched because he has a penchant for climbing the local water tower. Gilbert gets no help from his fourteen-year-old sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), who spends all her time painting her nails and getting a sun tan. His older sister Amy (Laura Harrington) helps, but her past includes accidentally burning down the local school cafeteria. Then there's the Gilbert residence, an huge, old ramshackle house that is constantly threatening to collapse, especially under the weight of Mama.
Gilbert sees a glimmer of hope in the form of Becky (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother, whose trailer home breaks down while passing through Endora. Becky represents life outside of Endora free of responsilbities -- precisely the kind of life Gilbert has never known. The conflict of the film is whether Gilbert can, in good faith, leave his family behind to save his own sanity.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" was helmed by Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, who made a sweet coming-of-age film in 1985 called "My Life as a Dog." In "Gilbert Grape" he shows the same keen awareness of character and internal conflict that made his earlier films come alive. "Gilbert Grape" was based on a novel by Peter Hedge who also wrote the screenplay, which considerably cuts down on the cynicism and irony in the original work. This could have been a much different film if Hedge had stayed closer to the source material, but he opted to go with bittersweet instead of just bitter, thus sacrificing some of the hard-edged humor in the book.
Nevertheless, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is a small gem, the kind of film Hollywood doesn't make enough of. Nothing very big happens, unless you're in Gilbert's shoes There are small touches of humor, such as the conflict between the small, family-owned grocery that employs Gilbert, and the large, corporate-owned Food Land that just opened down the highway with its bright lights and tanks of live lobsters. The Grape family is both funny and sad, as are many things in life, and the film walks the line with constant success.
Johnny Depp turns in a quiet, understated performance in the lead role, allowing all of Gilbert's conflicts to be read in his eyes. Darlene Cates, who the producers discovered on an episode of "Geraldo" dealing with obesity, is completely natural and convincing in her debut performance. If there were more roles in Hollywood for 600-pound women, she would be a overnight movie star.
But the real standout in the film is Leonard DiCaprio as Arnie. His performance is incredibly realistic and multi-faceted. Arnie is capable of eliciting both utter frustration and complete devotion. As Gilbert states in the opening sequence, "Some days you want him to live, other days you don't."
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is the kind of film that is filled with many small joys, instead of one big pay-off. It's expertly handled, well-written material that knows and understands its many different characters. There are moments in this film that cover the entire emotional spectrum, and not a second is wasted on insincere emotion, making it a real winner.
©1997 James Kendrick