What's eating Judge Brendan Babish? Bedbugs.
Arnie knows a secret. His big brother Gilbert is the greatest person on the planet.
When What's Eating Gilbert Grape was released in 1993, it grossed a paltry $9 million at the box office. While meager returns have doomed other films to obscurity, the careers of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio have taken off in the past decade, and, as the home video market and cable kept the movie readily available, a sizable audience for this subtle, yet often absurd, family drama slowly emerged. Now Paramount Home Video is upgrading their previous bare bones DVD with a "Special Collector's Edition."
Facts of the Case
Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) is a conflicted young man. Though he yearns for freedom, he has responsibilities that keep him rooted in the small and bleak town of Endora, Iowa. These responsibilities include: satisfying the sexual urges of a local desperate housewife (Mary Steenburgen, Time After Time); maintaining a decrepit house that care barely withstand the weight of his morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates); and looking after Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic), his mentally impaired younger brother who can't seem to stay out of trouble.
That summer, Gilbert meets Becky (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear), a mysterious out-of-towner whose trailer has broken down in Endora. Gilbert is drawn to Becky, and the means of escape she offers, but is conflicted between his own desires and the needs of his family.
At one point during the film's commentary track, Peter Hedges, who wrote both the novel from which the movie was adapted as well as the screenplay, mentions that What's Eating Gilbert Grape would probably never be financed by any major studio today. While this seems to be said about nearly all non-action movies that are more than 10 years old, I have a feeling it may be accurate in this case. Any studio executive worth his salt would quickly surmise how hard it would be to market a film as quirky and—occasionally—dark as What's Eating Gilbert Grape. This is a film that can't be neatly labeled as a comedy or drama. It is too sad to be a comedy, and too funny to be a drama. Sure, the studio could just cut a trailer with "Solsbury Hill" playing over shots off Gilbert bandaging a cut on Artie's wrist, and DiCaprio clutching his overweight mother, but anyone who is enticed to see a movie because they're still moved by "Solsbury Hill" is probably not going to appreciate the offbeat charms of Gilbert Grape anyway.
And yet, it is the same offbeat charms that hinder the film's marketing which make it such a rich and authentic movie. Credit for this largely goes to Hedges and the film's director, Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog). I don't think it's a coincidence that this film is so refreshingly unconventional and its creators were both Hollywood neophytes in 1993. What's Eating Gilbert Grape was Hedges's first novel and first screenplay, while the more accomplished Hallström was making only his second American movie.
As previously mentioned, Gilbert's mother, Bonnie Grape, is overweight. While a conventional movie would simply hire Kathy Bates and head home early, director Hallström cast the 500-pound non-actor Darlene Cates after watching her appearance on an afternoon talk show. And in a role that is very much the heart of the movie, Cates delivers a performance that would have been remarkable even for a trained actor.
But Cates' is not the only strong performance. In fact, What's Eating Gilbert Grape is probably one of the best-acted films of the 1990s. With strong supporting turns from the invaluable John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights) and Crispin Glover (River's Edge) and nearly flawless lead performances from Depp and DiCaprio, the acting here is so strong there is not one moment in this film that rings false. DiCaprio's performance (for which he received an Oscar nomination) is particularly impressive. After recently watching Gilbert Grape with a friend, she sat in stunned silence for a few minutes after it was over. She then whispered, sort of awed, "I never knew Leonardo DiCaprio could act."
His performance as the mentally-challenged Arnie is so good I found myself lamenting, not for the first time, DiCaprio's recently conventional movie choices. While I recognize that Titanic has irrevocably turned the actor Leonardo DiCaprio into a franchise, watching him here reminds me how much range he used to have. Before Titanic, DiCaprio was one of the most exciting and dynamic young actors in Hollywood. In films like This Boy's Life and Total Eclipse (as well as Gilbert Grape) he played fragile, unromantic characters and delivered powerful emotional performances that earned him a small, but impassioned fan base. Since Titantic DiCaprio has taken a series of lead roles in films like Catch Me If You Can and Gangs of New York that, while enjoyable, are utterly conventional. Addtionally, DiCaprio invariably plays strong, dashing young men, roles which may bestill the hearts of his teenage fans, but fail to provide the challenge or risk of a role like Arnie Grape. So while his work here is undeniably exceptional, it is somewhat disappointing to realize that DiCaprio gave his most powerful performance at 18 years old.
Johnny Depp lies at the other end of the spectrum. Though he is equally hunky as DiCaprio, and beholden to an even larger female fan base, he continues to embrace playing anti-social misfits. For this he has earned a nearly unimpeachable reputation in Hollywood. On the DVD commentary track, Lasse Hallström gives Depp much of the credit for getting this film made. After reading the novel Gilbert Grape, and before a script had even been written, he agreed to star in the picture. If only more actors took similar leaps of faith, thoughtful, subtle and deeply-moving dramas like What's Eating Gilbert Grape might not be an endangered species in Hollywood.
As most fans of this movie probably already own the DVD, the key question is whether this Special Collector's Edition is worth the upgrade. Unfortunately, the extras are not overwhelming enough for me to fully endorse shelling out the extra cash. The only substantive extra is the commentary track with Hallström and Peter Hedges. That said, it is one of the better commentary tracks I have heard. Listening to it I wondered why screenwriters aren't more often included on these. Hedges provides great detail of the origins of the What's Eating Gilbert Grape novel, and the many gestations of the Gilbert Grape script. For those, like me, who have watched this film numerous times, Hedges's comments are particularly interesting. Additionally, Hallström and Hedges both make several allusions to extended scenes. This just seems cruel, as Paramount (or perhaps Hallström himself) made the inexplicable decision to exclude any deleted scenes or outtakes.
Instead, we get three very brief featurettes: "The Characters of Gilbert Grape," "The Voice of Gilbert Grape," and "Why We Love Gilbert Grape." These three featurettes are all cut from the same cloth, which includes interviews with Hallström and Hedges, Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, Darlene Cates and Mary Steenburgen. Hallström and Hedges offer little beyond what they provided in their commentary track, while the cast recounts what a great time they had working on the film. It is nice to know how well everyone got along (Depp, in particular, offers nothing but effusive praise for his co-stars), but these featurettes offer very little depth into the making, or the legacy, of the film.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape was, at one point, one of the most overlooked films of the '90s. As time passes, its reputation has solidly grown and it seems to have finally received the praise and renown it deserves. For anyone who has never seen this fine film, I recommend it unreservedly.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Lasse Hallstrom and Writer Peter Hedges
Review content copyright © 2006 Brendan Babish; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.