Tuesday, 17 April 2012

What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Dir. Lasse Hallström
Starring: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen

I got a DVD of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape free with a newspaper quite some time ago. I never got around to watching it, before binning it last year. It just never particularly appealed to me. Watching it now I realise that I was missing out. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a very good – if rather leisurely – film, lifter by an astonishing performance from a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

The action is set in the small town of Endora, Iowa. Johnny Depp is Gilbert. Gilbert works in the town’s always empty grocery. He is also almost a full-time carer for his dysfunctional but loving family: massively obese mother Bonnie (Darlene Cates), eldest sister Amy (Laura Harrington), schoolgirl Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) and younger brother Arnie (DiCaprio) who has learning difficulties. He is also having a casual affair with local yummy mummy Betty (Mary Steenburgen). And casual is the word. Gilbert drifts through life passively. It is the need to provide for his family – particularly the spirited Arnie who has severe learning difficulties – that provides the only direction in his life.

Not long before Arnie’s 18th birthday Gilbert’s world is shaken when a motor caravan breaks down just outside town. This particular incident brings Becky (Juliet Lewis) into his orbit until a replacement part can be delivered. Becky catches Gilbert’s attention. And as his attention wanders things start to go wrong. He leaves Arnie to bath himself one evening; the next morning the boy is found shivering in the tub of cold water and refuses to wash again because he “almost drownded”. He breaks off his fling with Betty; a chain of events is started in motion that concludes with her husband keeling over from a heart attack and her having to leave town due to rumours that she murdered him. And he takes his eyes off Arnie whilst enjoying an evening with Becky; Arnie runs off to climb to town’s water tower, whereupon he is arrested by the Sheriff. Becky represents freedom and the possibility of escaping from Endora. However Gilbert is chained to the town by his mother and brother. It is this battle that is played out, gently, over almost two hours of screen time.

Gilbert is a character that has given up on ambition and drive. When Becky asks him to reply, as quick as possible, what he wants in life, he pauses and then says “I want to be a good person.” He is almost totally selfless. This is why the accusations of selfishness by his family when Arnie gets into trouble really wound him. He cares about Arnie, and for the first time in his life he is daring to dream of getting something for himself. He is trapped in a net of people’s expectations of him. His obese mother has never stepped outside the house her dead husband built for the family for seven years (this mirrors the real life story of Darlene Cates who played her; until the film came calling she had not left her own home for five years). As Gilbert puts it, “my mom is sort of attached to the house. Attached is, I guess, not the right word. She’s pretty much wedged in.” When he asks Betty why, out of all the men in town, she chose him for her affair her reply is that “I knew you’d always be there. Because I knew you’d never leave.” He is part of the furniture, safe, reliable… bland. On the rare occasions when Gilbert does express convictions – such as telling Mr Lamson that he would rather die than go to Food Land – he doesn’t sound very convinced by them. He is a perfect fit for a small town.

But the small town is threatened by outsiders. The caravans usually just pass through at the same time every year, en route from somewhere more exciting to somewhere else more exciting. It is the fact that Becky is forced to stop here until the car can be repaired that upsets his world. The grocery store is dying on its feet in the face of competition from Food Land on the outskirts. The arrival of a Burger Barn, shipped in complete, to sit beside it is another nail in the coffin on the deserted high street. Leaving Endora is a lure. Betty takes her family away once the small-town whispers get too much. Gilbert tries to leave, only to turn his truck around once he gets to the city limits.

The Grape Escape: Gilbert, Arnie and Becky
(Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis)

The film really revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie. Now I am not a particular fan of little Leo. But here he puts on a quite astonishing performance. He is absolutely believable. The actor vanishes. There is not a false note in his portrayal of Arnie as an energetic and loveable but demanding and illogical boy. His accent, his mannerisms, his physicality and his exuberance all added up to what I have to call one of the most remarkable transformations I can recall seeing. I was a little bit upset when I read Leo’s own words about his spending time with “mentally retarded children”, words which actually caused me to recoil a little, because otherwise he gives a bigheartedly sympathetic performance as the strange boy that bursts into people’s lives like a ray of sun, and then rapidly wears them out.

I wonder where Swedish director Lasse Hallström grew up, as he seems to have an eye for the minutiae of small town life and the chains which hold people back from escaping. The pace is, as I’ve said, ‘leisurely’ throughout (I did find myself glancing at my watch even while I was enjoying the performances on screen). That is, until the last ten minutes, when the tone turns unexpectedly dark. But he populates Endora with believable characters such as the ever-helpful Tucker (the great John C. Reilly in one of his earliest roles), and the enthusiastic undertaker Bobby (Crispin Glover – otherwise known as George McFly from Back to the Future). One of the best small moments, which did not need to be included but which gives a great bit of flavour, is when Gilbert has to go to Food Land to buy a replacement birthday cake for Arnie. He comes out to find Mr Lamson (Tim Green) sat out front in his car. They make eye-contact. And Mr Lamson gives the most wonderful expression of hurt. That moment, for me, sums up everything the film is about. In trying to do right, Gilbert hurts someone. And it also expresses the fascination the outside world holds for the small town, even though it is killing them.

What have I learnt about Iowa?
I’ve spent so much time this year slating small-town mentalities that I feel almost strange sticking up for the small towns here. I much prefer the Endora main street with its family-run grocers, insurance agents, undertakers and cafes to the out-of-town corporate chains and franchises like Food Land and Burger Barn. People like Tucker who are always ready to help out with odd jobs are the backbone of a successful community. But I can see that people like Gilbert might feel the need to escape, to get away from the same setting, faces and scenarios day after day. But the fields, the water holes, the self-built houses and the central town watertower leave lasting impressions of small town scenery.

And for outsiders Iowa is just so much roadside. They drive through to get from A to B, but would not stop to investigate unless they were forced by circumstances to.

Can we go there?
You can, but you won’t be going to Iowa. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was filmed around Austin in Texas. The town of Manor provided the trademark water tower up which Arnie loves to climb. Lamson’s Grocery was really Manor Grocery. However the impressive courthouse seen when the Grapes go to pick up Arnie from the police station is nearby Lockhart, “the barbecue capital of Texas”. Other scenes were shot in Elgin, “the sausage capital of Texas”. Forget eating Gilbert Grape, I have a craving for eating barbecued bangers right now!

The Food Land supermarket is located at the intersection of I-35 and Texas State Highway 29 in Georgetown. The Grape residence was Quicksand Farm on Hodde Lane outside Pflugerville. Obviously it is there no longer.

Overall Rating: 4/5

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad this movie is still being talked about and praised 20 years after it came out. It's one of the best movies ever made--so unique, poignant, and moving in so many different ways with so many layers.
    But I didn't know the house they used wasn't there anymore?? This is the website for it by the people who live there/own it--I think it's still there or they would have noted that on the homepage there: