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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

January 26, 2010

8/10 Big Mamas

Works really well for a movie that could have been boring as hell.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is about a twenty-something fella’ living in a middle-of-nowhere town in Iowa with his two catty sisters, his autistic younger brother and his morbidly obese mother who hasn’t left the house in seven years. After his father leaves the family and commits suicide, Gilbert becomes the man of the house and takes on everyone else’s responsibilities to the point where he doesn’t know how to take care of himself. Dude’s got a lot riding on his shoulders and, you guessed it, it eventually starts to eat away at him.

This is an unusual movie. When you think about captivating movie premises, an everyday weirdo family living in the most dead-end town in America isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. But apparently that line of thinking is completely irrelevant in this case because that’s exactly the thing about this movie that sucked me in. Well, there are other things, too, but sometimes keeping it simple is just what the doctor ordered.

Haven’t seen anything else by director Lasse Halstrom, but props to him for serving up such a nice little slice of humanity. It’s a very character-driven movie and since there’s not a whole lot else to focus on outside of the sunsets in Endora, IA, Halstrom does a good job of focusing the story on the people that make it unique. Those Swedes and their sunsets…

But this little ditty is about Gilbert, and Gilbert is one interesting guy to watch. He’s played by Johnny Depp and even though I’m still no fan of Captain Jack Sparrow, it’s great to see Depp in downplayed roles like this that don’t play to his handsome devil looks. Granted, Depp’s never been one to buy into the whole “pretty boy” category, but all the same, he’s good.

Gilbert’s just a great character in that he really does make you wonder what’s eating him. He’s soft-spoken about his feelings, a lot of his actions are surprisingly hurtful and go against what most would consider better judgment, and he’s morally flawed when it comes to many of the relationships he has with family, friends and lovers. The more you get to know him, the more you think, “What the hell is up with this guy?” You really do want to find out more about him and it makes the title a lot less strange.

But for all the qualities that would make him an otherwise unlikeable protagonist, his obvious love and devotion to his autistic brother, Arnie, is what makes up for it. Gilbert’s a very complex dude, more complex than you would initially guess, and it’s really great to watch him shed his layers and take control of his life.

And as for Arnie, well, Arnie’s freakin’ awesome thanks to one unreal performance by Leonardo Dicaprio. Still have my issues with Leo – I mostly blame the newfound Boston “accent” – but he brings it home like you wouldn’t believe. It’s a really tough role but the kid steals the show; had me cracking up and welling up throughout. If I hadn’t known that he wasn’t actually autistic, he would have had me fooled without thinking twice. Might just be the pest performance he’s ever given, barely edging out Catch Me If You Can. Too bad he had such serious competition at the Oscars that year, ’cause this would have been an award-winning performance on any other day.

Also features a solid performance by Juliette Lewis – something I never thought I’d find myself writing – as Gilbert’s main squeeze and good side roles by Crispin Glover, John C. Reilly and Mary Steenburgen.

First time I saw this movie way back when, didn’t think much of it. But since I was half-watching it and multi-tasking like an idiot while it was on and only really remembered the ending, I’m glad I took up my good buddy Fred’s suggestion to give this one a second chance. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is a really subtle, honest and fascinating character study about family and the weight of responsibility that just feels real. It’s people dealing with people, people dealing with life, and those are the kinds of movies I dig.

That Fred…always listen to Fred.

One Comment leave one →
  1. mcarteratthemovies permalink
    January 26, 2010 1:16 pm

    Right again, Aiden R. — “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” SHOULD have been “boring as hell” but was not due to the very fine acting of one Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio — who I feel certain Sam from “Garden State” would say deserved the Retarded Oscar — and Darlene Cates. Wasn’t so crazy about Juliette Lewis, though. I may be the only person alive who’ll admit that I like her better as a musican than an actress.

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