The Johnny Depp Archive

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Darlene Cates, Mary Steenburgen, John C Reilly, Crispin Glover

Directed by: Lasse Hallström

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Bonnie, Amy, Arnie, Ellen and Gilbert enjoy a family outing.  Not really.

What's eating Gilbert Grape? Probably the fact that his life sucks. Stuck in the one horse town of Endora, a place 'where nothing much happens and nothing ever will' and the height of ambition is to work in the new, pre-fab Burger Barn, his life revolves around his retarded brother, Arnie (Leonardo Di Caprio), who was never meant to live to the ripe old age of eighteen, and his 'beached whale' of a mother (Darlene Cates), who was surely never meant to reach the ripe old weight of 36 stone.

Together with his sisters, Amy and Ellen, he lives in a house that is slowly subsiding beneath the weight of his mother and he works in a grocery store where nobody shops. The only excitement in his life is an awkward affair with Mrs Carver (Mary Steenburgen), the wife of the local insurance salesman, which is abruptly curtailed when her husband keels over and drowns in the kids' paddling pool.

All Gilbert wants is to 'be a good person', yet no matter how hard he tries it never seems to be good enough. 'You've got to do better,' his mother moans. 'Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about your family,' Mr Carver admonishes him. Yet it seems to the audience that poor Gilbert does nothing but. Every one wants a piece of him, and there simply isn't enough to go round. Every time he tries to snatch a moment to himself, Arnie, who needs to be watched constantly, gets into trouble (he has a rare head for heights and likes nothing better than to climb to the top of the local water cooler) and Gilbert is left feeling guilty. He accepts his lot with wry good humour and only the occasional strop, yet dreams of something better - although what, he's not quite sure.

Juliette Lewis as Becky with Johnny and Leonardo Di Caprio

And then along comes Becky (Juliette Lewis), a free spirit on the road with her grandmother who becomes temporarily stranded in Endora when their truck breaks down. Becky is the only person who can accept Gilbert for who he really is, not who he should or could be, and who doesn't want anything from him. And so an understated yet heart warming romance blossoms that opens up new vistas to Gilbert and proves that, just as he suspected, there is more to life than the empty streets and flat plains of Endora.

Okay, so my summary doesn't make it sound the most thrilling plot in the world, but What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is nevertheless a lovely film that really gets into the skin of its characters, creating a real feeling of warmth, rapport and empathy with the audience. The simple script relies heavily on the nuances of expression of its actors, and the rock solid cast does not disappoint. Character stalwarts John C Reilly and Crispin Glover (typecast as the world's most gleeful undertaker) are delightfully watchable as Gilbert's best friends, whilst Juliette Lewis offers a charming mix of gawkiness and self-composure, youth and wisdom as Becky.

Leonardo Di Caprio as Arnie, with Johnny as Gilbert

A lesser actor than our Johnny would have been in grave danger of being eclipsed by Leonardo Di Caprio, whose nervous tics and twitches and flash mood swings, from shivering fear to bubbling exuberance to outrageous rudeness, make the character of Arnie utterly believable. Di Caprio was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for the role, and it probably is his best performance to date (tied with The Basketball Diaries, anyway).

Johnny, of course, is brilliant as Gilbert, torn between love for his family and the repressed desire to escape the whole damn lot of them. Particularly convincing is his self-imposed immunity to embarrassment as he sings to Arnie at the top of the water tower through a loud hailer or follows his enormous mother out of the local police station to find that a gawping audience of townsfolk have turned out to see the freak show: the mix of exterior bravado and inner cringing is perfectly conveyed. And, yes, he looks lovely too, definitely a Good Hair film.

Will Gilbert escape his straitened life and sail off into the sunset? Ach, you're just going to have to rent it, aren't you? Believe me, it's well worth it.

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