What's Eating Gilbert Grape Movie Review

His fans may love Leonardo DiCaprio best for his role as the scampy hero of a ship called Titanic, but I'll always know him best as a retard. DiCaprio's role as the severely autistic Arnie Grape -- a role which DiCaprio owned so wholly most moviegoers thought the then-unknown actor was truly retarded. He won a 1994 Oscar nomination, losing to Tommy Lee Jones' turn in The Fugitive, just one in a series of recent Oscar heresies.

So who's Gilbert Grape, and what's eating him? Gilbert (Johnny Depp, in another outstanding performance from the film) is the unofficial caretaker of the Grape clan, a rural Iowa family that includes the aforementioned Arnie, coming up on 18 years old, and the enormous Momma (Darlene Cates), a 500-pound woman who hasn't left the Grape house in nearly a decade. Taking care of Arnie and Momma is enough work for three people -- but sisters Ellen and Amy don't carry their weight, leaving Gilbert to do the heavy lifting (no pun intended).

Compounding problems are the fact that Gilbert's job (yes, he works, too) at the corner store is jeopardized by the new FoodLand (complete with lobster tank), he's having an affair with a crazy (married) woman (Mary Steenburgen), and, in fact, the Grape's house is crumbling around them.

It's enough to drive a man to suicide, but Gilbert is given a brief respite from the chaos of daily life when Becky (Juliette Lewis) arrives in town with her mother as part of a trailer caravan. When Becky's trailer breaks down, she's stranded in town and turns her attentions to Gilbert -- and everything gets turned upside down.

On the strength of DiCaprio and Depp's performances, What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a fantastic look at the anachronisms of small-town life and the myriad problems of coping with a go-nowhere existence. The dialogue is realistic to the point of putting you in the scene, and Lasse Hallström's direction, which normally I find intrusive and workmanlike, is spot-on for once. The quirkiness of the story really puts the film over the top -- you'd expect to see these people on Jerry Springer (and in fact, Cates was discovered by novelist Hedges on a daytime talk show) -- making Gilbert Grape a rare slice of life that you just don't get in the movies any more.

The only real weakness in the film is Lewis, who doesn't come across as either likable enough to attract Gilbert's attention or alternative enough (short hair notwithstanding) to attract anyone else's. It's unfortunate, because her arrival in the town is meant to propel the plot, but in my opinion, Gilbert's got enough eating him without her.

The new DVD adds a commentary track and three featurettes.

Comments

What's Eating Gilbert Grape Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: PG-13, 1993

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