Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)


I have been to towns like Endora, I understand fully why Gilbert wants to leave!

Screenplay By: Peter Hedges
Directed By: Lasse Hallström

I spent my share of time, too much if you ask me, on the road as a mover. In many of my cross country trips we would stop at towns just like Endora. We didn’t always have moves in these towns, mostly we would stop there to eat, sleep and in the case of some of my co-workers do other things. However, every once in a while we would have a move in a town like Endora. It shouldn’t surprise you that we were never moving people into such a town, we were always moving them out. In casual conversation almost every person in the town would express their desire to get out, not through words but through glances, sighs and body movement. Yet, to a person we knew that none of them would be leaving until it was too late, the people we did move out were either dead to the world or had suffered some great tragedy that meant they would never be a whole person again. It was rare, but every once in a great while we would move someone who actually had hopes for their future and hadn’t overstayed their welcome in the town.

Gilbert fits into the last category, and that is why he is the basis for the movie and not anyone else. His tale is a common one on the American plains, more common than most people would like to think. Sure, the situation surrounding him has been amped up for dramatic effect, but his feeling of entrapment is real. There came a time for the people I would meet in these little towns where they could no longer envision any scenario by which they could get out. They effectively worked in stages. The young teens talked all the time of their dreams and their hopes for the outside world. The young twenty somethings still talked about their dreams for the outside world, but now there was a hint of a dream passed in their voices. Once they hit thirty the talk of the dream had vanished, instead it is a longing for the chance to escape that they missed. Beyond middle age they become like zombies almost, resigned to their situation, not willing to look back because of the pain it causes them. The arrival of outsiders is fascinating to them no longer because they have no more reason to care for what life will bring them. Gilbert is that twenty something teetering on the edge of losing the dream, of not escaping and that is why he is the focal character in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Gilbert is a good kid bogged down by his responsibilities. People can always relate to too much responsibility being foisted upon them, so even if you can’t relate to Gilbert’s small town problem you can relate to Gilbert. Johnny Depp plays Gilbert very reserved, very natural and it works. I’ve actually heard people complain that he is too good looking for this sort of role. All I can say to that is that the plains of America are full of great looking guys and gals who become stuck in their situation and never escape. When Gilbert snaps we don’t want him too, but we can understand why he has. Depp makes Gilbert a believable character and since the movie rises or falls on his shoulders that is a very good thing.

Much praise was lavished upon Leonardo DiCaprio for his portrayal of Arnie. It was a good performance no doubt, but I wasn’t as wowed by it as others. Not middling in any way, but not a performance that made me all wide eyed. I was particularly fond of Mary Kate Schellhardt as young Ellen, so it’s vexing to see that after this role her career went nowhere.

Then there is the portrayal of the mom by Darlene Cates. I don’t fault the performance for my dislike of the character, I fault the script, direction and music, as well as my own inherent views on obesity. Too often they play her for sympathy and I don’t find her a sympathetic character. She wasn’t always that way, she is the one who started eating and wouldn’t stop. She put herself in that situation and because of it is a louse of a parent and always shirks responsibility onto those around her. The character does come around a bit in the end, but I could never get behind the sympathetic tact What’s Eating Gilbert Grape took with her.

That was my one big gripe with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the rest of the issues are small, such as Juliette Lewis playing the same character yet again. And whatever reservations I took away from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape were overridden by what I did like about the film. Depp, DiCaprio, the youngest sister, John C. Reilly & Crispin Glover (although there is no excuse for those two titans not getting more screen time!), the cinematography and the slice of life nature of the story. Viewed in today’s climate What’s Eating Gilbert Grape seems a bit pedestrian, it’s narrative style has become a favorite of the cinema indie. That doesn’t change the charm and raw beauty that is at the core of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Not all of us can relate to having an obese mother and a mentally retarded brother. But we can relate to feeling trapped by our surrounding with no way out, we can relate to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.




3 responses to “Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

  1. Souren Topchian

    It’s a great film,it’s a very kind film…

  2. I saw this movie for the first time this weekend. It was fantastic.. It really gets into the heart of a disfunctional family and how dispite all the problems they rally together. Leonardo DiCaprio should have received an Emmy for his proformance. Johnny Depp as young as he was in this role proved why he is still on top of the movie scene today. The mother was a damaged soul..and touches on the sadness of a person with severe obesity. The scene where she told Gilbert how she felt about him was so profound. I loved this movie and highly recommend it to all…

  3. Souren – Kind is a good word to describe the film.

    Trish – Valid thoughts all, but I must admit that as time has passed i don’t place this movie as a great one. For one reason or another the film hasn’t stayed with me.

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