Title: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Cast: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, John C. Reily, Crispin Glover, Mary Steenburgen, Darlene Cates
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a film that talks about how life can be strange, beautiful and tragic all rolled into one and how sometimes there’s not much we can do about it. Sometimes, those are the cards we are dealt and what’s left for us to do is just try and survive as best we can through it while we are trying to make sense of it all. In this film we meet Gilbert Grape, a young man who’s lost his father, has an obese mother, two bitchy sisters and a mentally challenged brother called Arnie; so Gilbert doesn’t exactly enjoy a happy family life. It’s not that he doesn’t love his family, in fact; he is portrayed as someone who loves his entire family even though they sometimes drive him nuts. He’s the kind of guy who’ll take care of everyone else before taking care of himself. He forgets to make himself happy, but this is not entirely his fault, his brother Arnie takes up a lot of his time, Arnie needs Gilbert to survive. So in a way, Gilbert is kind of like a male version of Amelie (2004), you remember that one? That’s the French film about a girl named Amelie, she would help everyone, but always forgot to make herself happy. She didn’t even have time to find love, until she made time for it. This film follows a similar structure. Gilbert is the ultimate do gooder.
This is the kind of film that’s all about small town life. The film takes place in a fictional town called ‘Endora’. Gilbert is always complaining, saying how much he wants to leave Endora because not a whole lot happens there. If you ask me, I’d love to live there; the whole place is kind of like a paradise? The entire film was beautifully shot in Texas, and honestly, it made me want to live there, it’s that kind of film, its locations are so beautiful, you’ll wish you were there. But of course, the main character takes it for granted. I guess Gilbert wants out of Endora because to him, Endora is well, the name of the town says it all, it's End-ora. I guess Endora is representative of the quintessential dead end town. We always want what we don’t got, the fat want to be skinny, the poor want to be rich, the rich want to know about common people…and Gilbert wants out of Endora. I understand Gilbert though, I mean, here he is, in the prime of his youth and he is working in a local supermarket that’s on the brink of closing down.
When Gilbert goes back home, he goes to a dysfunctional family, now here is the true reason for Gilbert’s unhappiness. He finds himself trapped with taking care of his mother and his mentally challenged brother Arnie, masterfully played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Now here’s something you need to know about this movie, this is one of DiCaprio’s finest performances. It’s not an easy thing to play a mentally challenged individual, when done wrong, it can go horribly wrong. An example of this is Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001) a movie I despise because to me Sean Penn didn’t really sell me the performance; to me it looked like Penn simply playing 'stupid', not a convincing performance at all. But DiCaprio’s Arnie? Now we are talking! Now here’s a convincing performance! To be honest, when this film first came out in 1993, DiCaprio was just getting started in his career and I didn’t know who the hell he was yet. I actually thought they had used a mentally challenged actor to do this performance, it is that convincing!
DiCaprio did extensive research for his performance, which is why it comes off as so believable; he actually spent some time in a home for mentally challenged teenagers. DiCaprio’s performance did not go unnoticed; he was nominated for many awards that year, he was even nominated for an Academy Award in the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ category. Sadly, DiCaprio’s nomination was one of those times when an actor should have won the Oscar but didn’t. You know, like that year in which Ellen Burstyn was nominated for her amazing performance in Requiem for a Dream (2000) but ended up losing to Julia Roberts for her performance in Erin Brockovich (2000)? And you’re left saying “whaaaat?!” Well, that year, Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for playing Arnie, but lost to Tommy Lee Jones for his performance in The Fugitive (1993), can you believe it? One look at DiCaprio on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and I’m sure you’ll agree with me, it’s one of his best performances ever, truly memorable, he got me to feel for Arnie. I doubt you even remember Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, but after seeing Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, I doubt you’ll forget the performance. The chemistry between Arnie and Gilbert is great, loved seeing Depp and DiCaprio performing together.
But then again all the performances on this film are outstanding in my book. Darlene Cates, the actress they chose to play Gilbert’s obese mother, she was chosen after Peter Hodges, the author of the book the film is based on saw Cates appearance in an episode of the Sally Jessy Raphael show. The show’s theme was “Too Heavy to Leave Their House”. Hodges saw a tape of the show and immediately offered the role of Bonnie Grape to Mrs. Cates, who accepted. Now this was not an easy role to accept because it’s a role that would address her real life obesity and the way that people react to it. There are many scenes where Momma goes out on the street and people stare at her or make fun of her as if she was some sort of freak. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her to film these scenes. To me, this actress is a brave soul for recognizing her problem and not being afraid to address it through her performance. Depp himself apologized to the actress after filming some of his lines. So my hats off to this fine actress, she actually got to me; she was completely vulnerable and honest in her performance and that calls for appreciation.
The film is sprinkled with a great supporting cast. Mary Steenburgen plays the desperate housewife looking for some action with Gilbert. John C. Reilly plays this guy who wants to open up a fast food franchise called “Burger Barn”; he swears it’s the best kind of food. That’s something else the film touches upon, how big businesses are gulping up small ones. Then we have Crispin Glover playing the town mortician, basically, it’s one of those movies that is filled with all these characters that make up the town folk. Finally we have Juliette Lewis playing the role of a girl who travels across the United States on a camper with her grandma. When she and Gilbert meet, sparks fly. She offers him something he’d been missing all his life, a breath of fresh air, some love and understanding. Juliette Lewis glows on this movie. So what we got here is a bitter sweet movie filled with some wonderfully happy moments and some terribly dark ones as well, kind of like life. It’s a film that teaches us to take the good with the bad.