By Stephanie Zacharek
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After Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrsm made the magical and heartfelt My Life as a Dog in 1985, he went the route of almost all successful foreign filmmakers (save the Chinese). He went west to Hollywood, where five years later he released the mildly agreeable but ultimately disappointing Once Around. This was standard fare: a feel-good story about a suburban family of eccentric but not very believable characters. In What's Eating Gilbert Grape, his current release, he's still in the U.S.A., but he's closer to his filmmaking roots. Like My Life as a Dog, Gilbert Grape is an honest meditation on small-town life, although it's darker. Both films are studded with eccentrics, but the strange people here seem more warped than simply formed by their solitude. Hallstrsm has understood the painful difference between small-town life in a civilized, tradition-rich country such as Sweden and the meaner existence afforded by the hamlets of the American plains.
Endora, Iowa (never mind that the movie was filmed near Austin) is just such a burg. In it, or rather, near it, live the Grapes. Gilbert (Johnny Depp) is the man of the family, given that his father committed suicide years before. His older sister, Amy (Laura Harrington in an unobtrusive but winning performance), is the de facto mother. In the time since their father hanged himself in the cellar, the actual Grape mother (Darlene Cates) has transformed herself into a grotesque. She weighs in at somewhere north of 500 pounds, and is so obese that she hasn't been upstairs to her bedroom in years. She lives on the couch. The kids carry the dinner table to her when it's meal time (she constantly has her hand in a bag of junk food, of course), and they throw -- or rather, dutifully, and even lovingly, lay -- a blanket over her when she's ready to sleep.
Momma is the Grapes' north pole, we might say, and her youngest son, Arnie (the brilliant-almost-beyond-words Leonardo DiCaprio), is the south. Arnie was born with an unnamed mental illness (a form of autism, I'd guess) and was not expected to live past ten. He's fond of telling strangers, "I could go at any time." But in a week he'll be 18, and Momma has decreed that the family throw him a proper party. First they have to make sure that he lives out the week, though, and given his propensity for climbing Endora's water tower, this is not a sure thing.
Hallstrsm makes us painfully aware of the Grapes' highly nuanced status in Endora. On the one hand, they're a butt of humor and gossip, given dad's messy death, Arnie's oddity and the fact that big Momma hasn't left her decaying house in ages. Gilbert and his two sisters (he has a younger sister as well) are "normal," accepted as members of the high school band and the local cafe society. But they can never forget that they're weird. Gilbert has so thoroughly embraced their one-foot-in, one-foot-out status that he jokes about his mother as a "beached whale." When small children arrive at the house for a peek at the giant mystery woman, he lifts them up so they can see through the window. When people get mad at Arnie for scaling the water tower and want to give him a shove, Gilbert is there to defend him, because "nobody hurts Arnie."
In short, Gilbert lives to serve, even in the affair he's having with the bored wife (Mary Steenburgen) of an insurance agent. She simply calls up the grocery where he works and asks for a delivery, and he trots on over.
Depp's portrayal of Grape is flat, piqued only by the occasional black humor of the jokes he delivers against his mother, and the genuine warmth he feels toward his lovable, demanding brother.
This all changes when the wagon train comes to town (that is, when the yearly camper caravan rolls through). It's an event Arnie always looks forward to. This year one of the campers, the one bearing Becky (Juliette Lewis), breaks down. She and her freewheeling grandmother are stuck in Endora for a week, until the necessary car part arrives from civilization. In a gentle '90s gender role reversal, Becky is the outsider who will awaken Gilbert, the sleeping beauty.
Most of What's Eating Gilbert Grape is quite wonderful. In fact, I'm tempted to call it the best film about small-town Americana since The Last Picture Show -- but that's not to say that it comes terribly close to that great film. The filmmakers here have an acute sense of both the pains and rewards of being perceived as strange, and not totally accepted. And almost no films have Gilbert Grape's highly detailed sense of family dynamics. There's something here for everyone who, as an adolescent, ever felt ashamed of his family.
But the film does go flat at the end, when it tries to untie the family knot and send Gilbert out into the world. Surprisingly, much of the problem lies in Depp's performance. He's generally a sensitive actor, but here he gets lost in Gilbert's catatonia. His performance seldom suggests that there is more to Gilbert than meets the eye, that he's a young man just waiting for his chance. For example, after Becky had finally led him off to the wide world, I had no idea of what he hoped to accomplish there, if he'd go to college or what he'd study once he got there. He is such an unknown quantity that scenes with his mother or Becky -- scenes that should be emotionally intense -- scarcely register.
There are a few other problems. Becky is rather generically life-affirming, and the movie drags a bit at the end. But its strengths more than compensate, especially DiCaprio's performance as Arnie. This young actor made a name for himself as the young Tobias Wolff character in This Boy's Life, but he's so good here that I simply didn't recognize him, and that's not because of makeup or any special effects. He is so convincing that I can only pay him the ultimate compliment by saying that when the credits rolled, I was surprised to find an actor's name associated with Arnie. I thought he was real.
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