Movie Review - What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1994)
by Michael J. Legeros
"You don't hurt Arnie. You just don't." - Johnny Depp to Juliette Lewis
One of the better leftovers from last year is WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, a quirky, underplayed drama about a young man and his dysfunctional rural family.
Meet the Grapes-- a decidedly odd lot. Daddy is dead-- he hanged himself in the basement-- and Momma (Darlene Cates) never leaves the house. She weighs a quarter-ton and eats and sleeps on the couch. Teenage daughters Amy and Ellen take care of their mother, a duty which consists, mostly, of nonstop cooking. Then there's Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the youngest son who's seventeen and retarded. Arnie wasn't supposed to survive childhood and requires constant supervision because, among other things, he likes to climb trees, roofs, and water towers.
At the center is Gilbert (Johnny Depp), the eldest son and the glue that holds the Grapes to the vine. Gilbert works at an ailing grocery, occasionally "sees" a married woman (Mary Steenburgen), and spends most of his time tending Arnie. He doesn't have much of a life-- something he doesn't realize until after the arrival of Becky (Juliette Lewis), a spirited girl who pitches a tent outside of town after her grandmother's RV breaks down.
GILBERT GRAPE is a very likable film containing a wonderful balance of humor and drama. The script is low-key and the direction is tasteful and matter-of-fact. What makes the movie magic, though, is the cast. And, with one exception, that cast is fantastic.
Newcomer Darlene Cates is a heavyweight, both in performance and stature. Her final scene is a knockout. Leonard DiCaprio is astonishing and clearly deserved of the Best Supporting Actor nomination he received. Juliette Lewis is equally impressive and exhibits a wisdom that is *clearly* is beyond her years. And don't forget Mary Steenburgen, a delight as the housewife who's desperate for Gilbert's attentions.
Look for Crispin Glover and Kevin Tighe. The latter does a fun turn as Steenburgen's husband.
The weak link is *the* link, Johnny Depp. The young actor stands at the center of GILBERT GRAPE and, essentially, does nothing. He could be acting in a sequel to EDWARD SCISSORSHANDS, for we all know. But a dull Deep isn't immediately irritating. Not when the strengths of the supporting players clearly compensate for his "blank state." (Rated "PG-13"/ 118 min.)
BOTTOM LINE: Quirky, underplayed drama about a young man and his dysfunctional rural family. With the exception of Depp, the cast is the reason to see this delightful film.
Thanks a lot to Treggy !