FILM REVIEW: What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (USA, 1993)
Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen

If you tried to sum up the career of Lasse Halstrom in one word, that word would be 'harmless'. Since breaking into film in the late-1970s after directing videos for ABBA, Halstrom has delivered a steady stream of consistently harmless fare: films which are sentimental, predictable, cloying but mostly charming, possessing nice colour palettes, quirky performances and a story that you will warm to, often against your will. What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, like Chocolat after it, is a reasonable if unremarkable drama whose charm eventually manages to overshadow its faults.Based on the debut novel by American author Peter Hedges, Gilbert Grape? was the film which put both author and director on the map for American audiences. Despite only breaking even with US crowds, the film won over the awards audience, who later rewarded Halstrom with two Oscars for The Cider House Rules. And whatever flaws or excesses Halstrom's more recent efforts may have, this film shows that when he concentrates he is capable of achieving memorable drama, at least in passing.One of the big pulls of Gilbert Grape? is its poetic visuals. Where most indie-spirited films boast washed-out colour palettes in a desperate bid to look hip and arty, this film comes across as artistically rich without feeling like it is trying to be like that. Sven Nykvist, who won Oscars for his work with Ingmar Bergman, gives us a naturalistic blend of the lavish and the worn, blending awkward dialogue scenes with wide shots of sunsets and trees reflected in water. It's like the lovechild of Nick Cassavetes and Peter Greenaway, being equally understated and arresting.From a more narrative or thematic point of view, Gilbert Grape? succeeds in capturing the feeling of being trapped in a town which does not inspire or enthral. Gilbert describes life in Endora as "like dancing without music" - it's full of people who have been there forever, but forgotten why they came here in the first place. It's a town in which nothing ever changes: Arnie will keep trying to climb the water tower, the campers will always drive past on the same day, and Gilbert's mother will always be as big as a whale (Gilbert's phrase, not mine).In particular, the film shows very accurately how such a town can drain young people of their soul. Gilbert is like the protagonist of 'Hotel California' by The Eagles: he can check out any time he likes, but he can never leave. He is stuck in Endora because all of his passion and imagination have been beaten out of him by the burden of his family and the boredom of his life. When Becky asks him to list things that he loves or is excited by, he finds it almost impossible.Because so much of Gilbert Grape? is concerned with depicting tedium, it can be hard to get a handle on the story if you're not in the right frame of mind. This is not a Lynchian view of small towns, in which the banalities of dinner table conversations mask deep-rooted, psychopathic horror. There is nothing as terrifying as Frank Booth running around with a nitrous oxide canister, and nothing quite as naively beautiful as Sandy's speech about the robins.The most tense the film ever gets is the scene when Gilbert is called into Ken Carver's office. Carver begins to talk about insurance and "accidents" in a thinly-veiled threatening manner, and we're not sure how much he knows about Gilbert's laid-back affair with his wife. This scene is quickly cut short by a phone call telling him the house is on fire, causing both men to leave both the building and the topic of discussion. This example cements Halstrom's approach with regard to depicting banality: it is not a means to an end, as in Lynch's universe, but solely an end in itself.The film also deserves praise for its depiction of and attitude to disability. The young kids in the film might mock Gilbert's mother for being obese, but Halstrom resists making any kind of moral judgement about her, or playing her condition for laughs in the scene at the police station. And then there is Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a startling performance as Gilbert's autistic brother Arnie - in the words of Janet Maslin, he's so good that he's difficult to watch. Although DiCaprio was Oscar-nominated, it doesn't fell like an awards-courting performance. Certainly it's not guilty of the cliché of 'Hollywood illness', in which someone can look exceedingly glamorous right up until they snuff it.The arrival of Juliette Lewis' character brings lustre to Gilbert's life, showing him aspects of himself which he never thought existed. Because Becky is an itinerant child, she has no time for people staying in one place for its own sake, challenging Gilbert's conception of life and eventually persuading him to come with her on the road. Coming from a similar background, she demonstrates that it is possible to be happy in spite of your upbringing, and that with the right amount of self-confidence, life can be worth living wherever you are.The schmaltzy content of that last paragraph gives you some idea of the tone of Gilbert Grape?. In its quirkier moments the film will send many running for cover, and in some cases it will take a couple of viewings to actually appreciate the film. Lewis' character is airy and free-spirited in that way which is always annoying in movies: rather than constantly uplifting us, she is frequently so wide-eyed and dorky that we find her irritating. She lacks the gripping ethereal quality of Emmanuelle Seigner or the female protagonists in a Terrence Malick film.Gilbert Grape? is also desperately predictable. As soon as Lewis walks on screen, pushing her bicycle in her white hat and with bright red lips, you know that she and Gilbert are destined to be together. Neither the awkward romance which springs up between them or the central character development is anything we haven't seen before, even though the film handles it in a perfectly workable manner. Halstrom attempts to defy our expectations in the final act, and succeeds to some extent. But ultimately there are no surprises, as the final reveal turns out to be just a small delay.Paradoxically for such an earnest and predictable film, the final problem with Gilbert Grape? is that it doesn't really know how to end. The film is 2 hours long and would have benefited from losing about 20 minutes, mostly from its closing section. The final act with Gilbert's mother getting upstairs and dying is drawn out: it gives Halstrom the chance to give us a beautifully-shot burning house, but there isn't anything like the catharsis that there should be in such a situation.In the end, however, Gilbert Grape? just about cuts the mustard on the strength and charm of the performances. DiCaprio is the stand-out, but his performance wouldn't be half as endearing if it wasn't counterpointed by an understated Johnny Depp. While his performance in Chocolat was something to be swooned over, here he is more distant, awkward and mysterious. Lewis, for all her irritability, is pretty convincing as Becky, and John C. Reilly is an amiable screen presence. This film and his recent work in We Need To Talk About Kevin suggests that he is a solid dramatic actor whose work with Will Ferrell was just a brief bad patch.What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is an unremarkable but perfectly decent indie drama. Like most of Halstrom's work it is quirky and sentimental in a way which will leave a portion of its audience feeling distinctly queasy. But these traits are not as marked here as there are in Dear John, and the charm and believability of the characters is enough to pull things through. To quote Radiohead, it is a case of no alarms and no surprises, which passes the time rather nicely without requiring much thought.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: Harmlessly charming


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