It’s not often Depp gets to play the only normal one. Academy Award nominees Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen star in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Cast of Characters:
Gilbert Grape – Johnny Depp
Becky – Juliette Lewis
Arnie Grape – Leonardo DiCaprio
Bonnie Grape – Darlene Cates
Amy Grape – Laura Harrington
Ellen Grape – Mary Kate Schellhardt
Tucker Van Dyke – John C. Reilly
Bobby McBurney – Cripsin Glover
Ken Carver – Kevin Tighe
Betty Carver – Mary Steenburgen
Director – Lasse Hallstrom
Screenplay – Peter Hedges
Based on the novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges
Producer – Meir Teper, Bertil Ohlsson & David Matalon
Rated PG-13 for elements of mature subject matter
In the small, backwater town of Endora, Iowa, Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) has been forced to assume the role as man of the house ever since his father hanged himself in the basement. Gilbert is the type of man that strives to be the good person, but once you meet his family, you can see how his goodness and back-breaking dependability have drained the life right out of him. As the only member of the family with a job, his source of income has to provide for five; his mother Bonnie (Darle Cates), once the town beauty, is now 500 pounds and refuses to leave their ramshackle house, much less the couch; his oldest sister Amy (Laura Harrington) is just about at her wit’s end as well in taking of their mom; youngest sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) is your typical hormonal 15-year-old brat; and their mentally retarded brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is always running into trouble with the law every time runs off to climb the local water tower.
It can’t be good when your one escape from it all is an ill-advised affair with a local married woman, Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen).
Things change for Gilbert, however, when the well-traveled Becky (Juliette Lewis) arrives in town after her and grandma’s car breaks down. After striking up an instant connection with the free-spirited gal, Gilbert begins to dream about what could’ve been and what possibly could be, which leaves him torn over remaining loyal to the family that depends on him or chasing what he truly desires.
Those that have seen any of director Lasse Hallstrom’s films know that his sentimental approach isn’t quite what you’d call subtle, but that doesn’t always equate to a bad film. Sometimes it works such as his Oscar-nominated My Life as a Dog, Chocolat and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and sometimes it reeks of failure like his two Nicholas Sparks efforts, Dear John and Safe Haven. In the former category, and one of his best films, is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Many have compared this film to Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show, and there are clear similarities, particularly in their sleepy small-town settings and discontented characters. The narrative is anything but complex as it meanders from Points A to B, so the film depends entirely on this eclectic band of country folk to carry it, and thanks to the uniformly wonderful work of Hallstrom’s cast, they’re able to create a meaningful experience.
Much like My Life as a Dog, which many consider to be his best film, Hallstrom demonstrates a great feel for each character and their internal conflicts. Both he and writer Peter Hedges, adapting from his own novel, opt for a different approach from the book, one that eschews its hard-edged humor for a softer, bittersweet tone, and the result is wonderful in all its small, quiet yet whimsical ways. Nothing eventful happens, but the beauty of this film is found in its characters, the small-town backdrop they live in and the little touches of humor that they bring. The rivalry between a mom-and-pop grocery store and the new corporate-run Food Land and their tanks of live lobsters (which the Endora residents respond to in utter amazement), and John C. Reilly’s Tucker talking up Burger Barn like its the wave of the future provide nice recurring bits.
Hallstrom pulls off a delicate act of balancing the small-town quirkiness and melodrama with a grounded sense of everyday life. If you’ve seen his duds, then you have a good idea of how bad he can drop the sentimental ball, but thankfully, here he chooses not to force the film’s sweetness down the viewers’ throats. If only he took a similar approach to Safe Haven, which was smothered in so much quaintness you wanted to punch every precious character in the face (though, different approach or not, we’d still be left with a nutball lead character who talks to her boyfriend’s dead wife).
At the time, Johnny Depp was already known for TV’s 21 Jump Street and his starring film roles in Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon. It was his turn as this film’s title character, however, that first showed the versatile range he possesses as an actor. His previous starring roles were the more eccentric brand of character that have, for better or worse, come to define his career. Here, though, he’s wonderfully understated and perfectly captures the dissatisfaction and deep-seeded bitterness that consumes Gilbert’s life. At times, he’s not the most likable character; allowing local kids to peer at his obese mother as if she’s a sideshow attraction shows the depths of his cruelty, but over the course of the film, his growth gradually reveals a multi-dimensional character.
In looking for someone to play the role of Bonnie, Hedges saw a tape of Darlene Cates on a 1985 episode of Sally Jessy Raphael titled “Too Heavy to Leave Their House”. Casting choices like that can be a risk, but there have been cases where filmmakers have struck gold (David Gordon Green took a similar worthwhile risk in casting the homeless Gary Poulter to play the abusive father Wade in Joe). Cates is a natural onscreen as the Grapes’ mother, and brings more to the role than just being some sad manipulative grab for our sympathies. We see the losses and disappointments that have weighed down her life, but there’s also a fierce side that comes out of her when it comes to protecting her family (her spotlight moment when leaving home for the first time in forever to demand her child’s release from jail is a scene-stealer).
The other supporting players also turn in strong work. As the free-spirited Becky, who appears to be the one soul in the universe capable of cracking Gilbert’s shell, Juliette Lewis shares a sweet relationship opposite Depp. Both John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover are solid as Gilbert’s pals, the former a Mr. Fix-It for the family, and the latter the town’s mortician. Mary Steenburgen’s desperately lonely housewife effectively recalls The Last Picture Show.
The winner out of all the performances, though, is Leonardo DiCaprio, whose breakthrough performance as Arnie Grape (one shared that year with his role in This Boy’s Life would earn him his first of four Academy Award nominations. It’s not easy pulling off any form of physical or mental handicap. Some criticize Dustin Hoffman’s turn in Rain Man, but I thought his performance was quite convincing. Daniel Day-Lewis gave an incredible performance as the cerebral palsy stricken Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Then you get manipulative performances like Sean Penn in I Am Sam. DiCaprio falls in the Hoffman/Day-Lewis category. DiCaprio doesn’t play Arnie in a cutesy manner. He’s immensely likable, but we also understand how he can be such a handful for the rest of his family. Not a single note in any of the twitches, quirks or mannerisms he displays rings false, and like his onscreen mother, DiCaprio walks a fine line between a sympathetic portrayal and a pitiful one.
Bolstered by its fine performances, including Johnny Depp’s subtly winning turn and Leonardo DiCaprio’s breakthrough performance, and a small-town backdrop that’s genuinely quaint without being sappy, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is tender story of restless misfits with heart. Like all things Lasse Hallstrom, the film wears its heart on its sleeve and comes wrapped in a blanket of sentimentality, but it’s a minuscule quibble when compared to the authentic characters and genuine sense of a warmth Hallstrom brings to his picture.