What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

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“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is an offbeat, middleweight charmer that is lent a measure of substance by its astute performances and observational insight. A modest effort of uninsistent qualities but many felicitous moments, this is not the sort of self-trumpeting, broadly commercial release normally associated with the year-end holidays. But word of mouth, probably starting with teenage girls but potentially extending to a wide variety of audiences, could reward distrib patience with good long-term results.

Adapted by playwright-actor Peter Hedges from his 1991 novel, small-scale film depicts the Grapes, a rural family that has every right to qualify as dysfunctional: Dad hanged himself in the basement years ago, Momma weighs 500 pounds and hasn’t left the house for seven summers, Amy and Ellen are teenage sisters who probably need a husband and a father, respectively, and Arnie is an unpredictable 17-year-old mental case who wasn’t supposed to survive childhood and requires constant supervision.

Under the circumstances, however, the family copes reasonably well due to the princely, self-sacrificial ministrations of eldest son Gilbert (Johnny Depp), who works at the grocery, carries on a discreet affair with an older woman and can’t even think of leaving due to how much Momma (Darlene Cates) and Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) depend upon him.

Arnie’s refrain, “We’re not going anywhere,” is thrown into pointed relief with the arrival of Becky (Juliette Lewis), who, with her grandmother, sets up home outside town in a shiny trailer. More worldly and sophisticated than the local rubes, Becky gently entices the reticent, unassertive Gilbert into a tentative romantic relationship just as his lover (Mary Steenburgen) is moving away.

Through it all, the center of Gilbert’s life, and of the film, remains his selfless, fatherly bond with Arnie. Evidently autistic and goofily childlike, Arnie particularly likes to climb the town’s water tower so that the cops have to retrieve him, and is the object of family attention due to the grand party planned for his upcoming 18th birthday.

Gilbert is so good, benign and self-effacing in his devotion to those around him that one wonders when he’s going to snap, and indeed he does, but in a comparatively mild manner.

Director Lasse Hallstrom and his fine cast have endowed the story with a good deal of behavioral truth and beguilingly unstressed comedy that expresses an engagingly bemused view of life.

This is best seen in the treatment of the two seriously afflicted characters, Momma and Arnie. Weighing in at a quarter of a ton, Momma gets her children to do her bidding from her permanent perch on the living room couch.

Two key sequences, one in which the dangerously weakened floor under her sofa is repaired without her knowing it, and another in which she finally emerges from the house to demand that the police release Arnie, could have been meanly derisive or superficially ennobling.

Instead, under Hallstrom’s sympathetic direction of first-time actress Cates, who was discovered on a TV talkshow about overweight women, both interludes evoke multiple emotions, which pays moving dividends in her gentle final scene.

Even trickier is Arnie’s character, whose spastic movements and infantile rantings could easily make viewers uncomfortable.

DiCaprio’s remarkable performance doesn’t stint on the erratic behavior, and also brings the kid alive as a human being who must be cared for and nurtured — as hopeless a task as that might be — thereby justifying Gilbert’s devotion to him.

Working with an opaque character who is almost a cipher where desires, emotions and ambitions are concerned, Depp manages to command center screen with a greatly affable, appealing characterization. Only bothersome detail is his pointlessly hennaed hair, which proves distracting.

Lewis provides some nice moments of well-timed interchange but might have brought a bit more edge and vitality to her outsider role. Given much less attention than the boys, Laura Harrington and Mary Kate Schellhardt can only hurriedly sketch in the Grape sisters. Steenburgen must mostly convey desperate longing, while Crispin Glover is amusing as the town’s predatory undertaker.

Set in Iowa but lensed in central Texas, pic has an unassuming, even surprisingly plain look, given Sven Nykvist’s eye behind the camera.

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