(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Living in Endora is like dancing to no music. Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) should know. Aside from a secret affair with a housewife (Mary Steenburgen), Gilbert spends his days stocking shelves at a grocery store, caring for his mentally handicapped brother (Leonardo DiCaprio), and holding together a large family headed by Mama, a former beauty queen whose weight tops 500 pounds. But just when Gilbert thinks nothing will ever change, a pretty stranger (Juliette Lewis) arrives on the scene, capturing Gilbert’s heart and inspiring him to make a break.
– From screenwriter Peter Hedges’ official site
In a way What’s Eating Gilbert Grape could be a distant relative of Winter’s Bone. Both take place in isolated communities (however instead of the Ozarks, the story unfolds in rural Iowa). Both communities are steeped in their own brand of small town secrecy, gossip and hierarchy. And most notably Gilbert, like Bone‘s Ree, is a provider for a household that is poor and fatherless: a kid who has been an adult for quite some time.
The first time I heard about this movie was when I was nine years old. The first time I saw it was when I was fourteen. Since then it has become a staple in my family’s household and one of our favorite films. I could theorize but I’m not sure why we have loved it so much. Perhaps it’s because we identified with the Grapes. Perhaps it was the time period when we first saw it together. Perhaps it was the performances. Or, perhaps, it’s just a really good film.
Either way, the history I have with this film is quite long.
Personally the reason I still like Grape is its depiction of a dysfunctional family being self-sufficient and loving despite the circumstances. During this last viewing I realized just how run down the Grape house truly is, as well as how far it is from the town. The family is struggling and poor. They are completely on their own. As the story unfolds it becomes clear they are a local tragedy and at times a nuisance to the town, but not real people. They are treated like a freak show.
The emotional barometer for dealing with all of this is Gilbert, who is so unhappy and beaten down it’s hard to tell if he feels anything at all. Part of this is due to the timing of Depp’s portrayal. In interviews Depp has revealed he was depressed, unhealthy and lonely while playing Gilbert, mostly because he identified with him so much. Since the film’s release he has refused to watch it. Grape‘s director, Lasse Hallström noted, “Johnny Depp tapped the inner rage of that character and he knew even more about that character than I realized.” Although Gilbert may not be one of Depp’s most memorable or eccentric roles, it may be the most revealing of himself. Once I realized this I appreciated his work even more.
Then there is DiCaprio’s Arnie, the lifeblood of the film. Arnie, Arnie, Arnie… how do you amuse me? Let me count the ways. What’s ironic is that this is the first- and only- film in which DiCaprio has been the comic relief. I doubt he will ever do it again, let alone play someone who can derail a scene the way Arnie does. I will mourn this until proven otherwise (but I’m not holding my breath). His inner-toddler practically owns the film, overshadowing everyone else. In his own words DiCaprio remarked it was “the most fun I’ve ever had.” Because Grape has become such a family favorite we find ourselves intentionally or unintentionally quoting it. Not surprisingly most of the quotes come from Arnie. I have joked that we quote him more than the Bible.
Depp and DiCaprio’s performances anchor the film but they aren’t the only ones worth mentioning. The supporting cast includes Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reilly (who I referred to as “Burger Barn Dude” for years afterward), Crispin Glover and Darlene Cates as Gilbert’s overweight mother. Each player has a scene that stands apart. Likewise, Juliette Lewis’s Becky is one of the most grounded, understanding and genuine love interests a man could ask for. Her monologue on beauty is particularly interesting: “I’m not into that. That whole external beauty thing, you know? ‘Cause it doesn’t last. Eventually, your face is going to get wrinkly, you’ll get grey hair, your boobs might sag, you know? So what? It’s what you do that really matters.”
In the end it’s the connections made during What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that give the film its power. What Gilbert learns is to value what he has instead of resenting it or taking it for granted. His relationships with Arnie, Becky and his mother all have moments of clarity and resolution. He realizes what he doesn’t want to lose, what’s truly important to him.
And, above all, he finds out just how strong and decisive he and his family can be when they are hit by tragedy. The sacrifice they make is hard to watch but is irrevocably their decision. Like they have always done, the Grapes are forced to stand apart and appear insane to everyone else. The scene is sad. It’s also stunning.
By then it doesn’t matter, though. The Grapes know they have each other. That’s all that matters.
God, I love that.
(Like Winter’s Bone I would recommend Peter Hedges’ novel of the same name, which he adapted himself. Written in first person, it reveals much more of the frustration and anger under Gilbert’s calm exterior. And believe me, there’s plenty of it.)