AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | May 14, 2011
Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: Peter Hedges
Starring: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover
Living in Endora, Iowa (Pop. 1,091) is like a non-stop endurance test for Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp). Let’s just say that there are a lot of things about his life in Endora that are eating at Gilbert.
Gilbert’s younger brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), was born with a mental retardation. Arnie was supposed to die a few years ago (as Arnie puts it, “I could go at any time”), but has defied his terminal diagnosis thus far; though Arnie’s penchant for climbing the Endora water tower may bring upon his death sooner than his medical condition. One of Gilbert’s many responsibilities is to care for and protect Arnie, whose 18th birthday party is rapidly approaching.
“My mom is attached to the house,” Gilbert explains, “she’s sort of wedged in.” Gilbert’s mother (Darlene Cates) weighs the better part of 500 pounds. She moves around as little as possible, spending most of her life sitting (and sleeping) on the sofa with the television switched on; even the kitchen table is routinely carried, with the dinner on it, to Gilbert’s mother. When she does move around the dilapidated Grape abode, the wood floors bend and quiver with every little step she takes. Since Momma Grape never ventures outside, she has grown into a near-mythic monstrosity that the neighborhood kids want to get a glimpse of through the window (Gilbert sometimes gives them a boost for a better view).
Though Gilbert does not always get along with his two younger sisters — Amy (Laura Harrington) and Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) — they do assist Gilbert with the management of the household by doing the chores and the cooking.
Gilbert works at a local grocery store, Lamson’s, but even that is threatened by Food Land, a big new supermarket conglomerate whose cheap prices and live lobsters are the talk of the town. While at work, Gilbert is called out on frequent delivery runs to the home of Mrs. Carver (Mary Steenburgen), a lonely housewife who habitually craves Gilbert’s youthful… umm… customer service. Mrs. Carver’s presumably inattentive husband (Kevin Tighe) is an insurance salesman who relentlessly hounds Gilbert to update his insurance portfolio.
Another conglomerate is coming to Endora — the town’s first cookie cutter, fast food hamburger franchise, Burger Barn. This is where Gilbert’s best friend, Tucker (John C. Reilly), dreams of working. Gilbert’s other friend, Bobby (Crispin Glover), is an apprentice at his family’s funeral parlor — a job that parasitically relies upon Endora’s inhabitants dying frequently enough to pay the business’ overhead.
Then there is Becky (Juliette Lewis), a romantic interest for Gilbert (and a crush for Arnie) who also represents his strong desire for freedom. Becky and her grandmother (Penelope Branning) arrive as part of a RV caravan that drives through Endora once every year, like clockwork. As luck would have it, Becky’s RV breaks down in Endora; placing their migratory vacation on stand-by until grandma can repair the RV. Becky cheerfully takes the fateful opportunity to get to know Gilbert and Arnie. As much as Gilbert gripes about being stuck in Endora, Becky seems to enjoy it. Gilbert learns a lot about life thanks to Becky and it is his love for her that finally shakes the entire Grape family out of their long-standing routine.
Like Becky, director Lasse Hallström views Endora not as the hellhole that Gilbert sees (or as the eccentric small town that most directors would see) but as a normal, everyday place inhabited by normal, everyday people with normal, everyday problems. Hallström’s Endora is not all that dissimilar to the Main Street America that we heard so much about during the 2008 elections. Endora is a place that used to thrive on an economy based on agriculture and mom and pop businesses, but is now being overrun by predatory corporations that are hoping to take advantage of an economically-strangled community. The 1,091 inhabitants of Endora are presumably stuck here — like Gilbert — because of family and/or financial hardships; unfortunately, they are left with very few choices other than to accept the invasion of outside businesses like Food Town and Burger Barn, just so the population of Endora has someplace to work. (Who would have expected that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape would possess such strong and coherently discussed economic undertones?)
Peter Hedges adapted the screenplay from his 1991 novel which also opts to discuss topics such as obesity and mental retardation with a gentle and humane sympathy, not pity or mockery. Momma Grape and Arnie may be crippled in some capacity, but they are still represented as normal human beings. Suicide is also represented in a realistic and matter of fact manner.
DiCaprio, who convincingly plays Arnie (I am embarrassed to admit that upon the theatrical release of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, I was convinced that DiCaprio really had a mental retardation until I saw him in This Boy’s Life), was nominated alongside Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List), John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire), Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father) and Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor; DiCaprio lost to the least worthy of the supporting performances. (Oh, no, I am not bitter.)
Depp’s sweetly subdued performance as Gilbert is one of many flawless performances of his from the early 1990s (Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, Arizona Dream, Ed Wood, Dead Man). Lewis was also at her pinnacle as an actor in the early 1990s with Cape Fear, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Natural Born Killers arguably representing the best performances of her career to date. And, you know, it amazes me every time I watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that Glover and Reilly are in this film too — even more surprising, both of their performances are commendably understated.
Cates was the real score for Hallström because the Momma Grape character would not have been the same if it featured an actor in a fat suit. Cates was discovered on an episode of the Sally Jessy Raphael show in which she admitted to weighing around 550 pounds. After What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Cates went on to work in television on Picket Fences and Touched by an Angel.
Shot on location in the Texas cities of Manor, Elgin, and Lockhart, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape recently screened as part of the Austin Film Festival’s Made in Texas Film Series.