Rating: PG-13 (some mature subjects)
Length: 118 minutes
Release Date: March 4, 1994
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom
Stars: 4 out of 5
“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” hit cinemas in 1994 with a mixed cast of well-established artists and up-and-coming stars. Johnny Depp, who plays the enigmatic Gilbert Grape, had recently delivered critically acclaimed performances in hits like “Benny and Joon” and “Edward Scissorhands.” Already known for quirky roles, Depp had not yet reached the swaggering bizarreness associated with characters like Captain Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. Depp turns in a characteristically solid performance as the quietly tortured Gilbert, although a young Leonardo DiCaprio quickly upstages him.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gilbert’s younger brother Arnie, who is mentally retarded. The brothers, together with their sisters Amy and Ellen, live in a ramshackle house with their morbidly obese mother. While the girls devote their time to keeping house and assisting their mother, who can hardly lift herself from the sofa, Gilbert is stuck caring for Arnie. Gilbert also works at the local grocery, which is being threatened by a fancy new supermarket, and spends time trying to repair the family’s home. In addition to all these responsibilities, Gilbert and his sisters must keep a constant eye on Arnie, lest he run away to climb the water tower in their small town of Endora.
The film, which has become a beloved classic in many circles, does a great job of presenting numerous serious issues in a thoughtful way without becoming completely depressing. Instead of defaulting to silly gags to lighten the mood, the film delves into life’s absurdity with a not-quite tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm. The resulting narrative is full of emotion, laughter, tears, and realistic lessons about everyday life.
As Arnie’s birthday approaches, a young woman named Becky and her grandmother become stranded in Endora due to vehicle troubles. Becky, who is played by Juliette Lewis, becomes somewhat of a summer fling for Gilbert, whose life is already complicated by family problems and an affair with an older woman. As Gilbert deals with the monotonous parade of problems in his life, he begins to resent the fact that Arnie is so dependent on him. In an attempt to become better acquainted with Becky, Gilbert neglects Arnie, which results in a dangerous situation and a strain in family relationships.
The character of Arnie was a breakout role for DiCaprio, who won awards for best supporting actor from the Chicago Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review. DiCaprio’s performance also earned him nominations from the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” also features notable performances from Crispin Glover and Mary Kate Shellhardt. Mary Steenburgen, who plays Gilbert’s mature paramour, delivers a performance reminiscent of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate.”
It is interesting to note that Gilbert’s mother, Bonnie Grape, is not played by a professional actress made up to appear obese. Darlene Cates, who plays Bonnie, was actually morbidly obese. A casting director looking for a suitable match for the part contacted a popular talk show and was provided with a tape of Cates’ appearance on the show. Despite this, Cates turns in a compelling and believable performance as the Grape family matriarch. This may in part be due to the fact that some of Bonnie Grape’s problems were similar to issues in Cates’ own life.
Overall, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is a slow-paced film that is more introspective than active. Throughout the first part of the film, Depp plays Gilbert as a young man who has become numb to the problems of life. He shows little emotion and seems to float from day to day out of habit. This is contrasted by Arnie’s innocent ability to live life joyfully, seemingly oblivious to the problems around him. The movie doesn’t really pick up speed until Gilbert begins to display emotions.
“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is an introspective film that deals with some heavy issues. Characters face the monotony of life, the thrill of adventure, the sweetness of first love, the pain caused by rejection, and the grief of losing someone. Certainly not a film for the kiddos, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” would make great family-fare for those who have older teens. Parents might find that the issues raised in the film, especially the illustrations about how society treats those who are different, provide fodder for important family discussions or life lessons.
The movie is not simply a cautionary tale or moral sermon, though. The lessons inherent in the story are derived naturally from the narrative and do not reduce viewer enjoyment. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is an engaging and charming story that starts out drab and works up to a realistic and hopeful approach to life.