What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Johnny Depp plays a man overwhelmed by his small town existence in the family melodrama WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo Dicaprio and Juliette Lewis
Released by Paramount Pictures
118 min (1993)

I can respect the fact that as an actor Johnny Depp is interested in taking on risky or unconventional roles, but I always find (with the exception of Captain Jack Sparrow) that Depp is best when he plays it real.   Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m not a huge fan of Tim Burton movies, but for me Depp has given his best performance to date as the emotionally frustrated Gilbert Grape in Lasse Hallstrome’s 1993 film WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?

To say Gilbert Grape has it tough is an understatement.   Living in the middle of nowhere, Gilbert is father/brother/handyman to a family that never seems satisfied with him.     Helping him get by are his two friends Tucker (John C. Reilly proving yet again what a shame it is he always gets cast in the supporting roles) and Bobby (Crispin Glover who, hey I have to be honest, will never be as memorable as George McFly).   There’s also housewife Betty (Mary Steenburgen) who Gilbert is having an affair with not out of genuine passion, but rather to add some much needed excitement to his life.

As frustrating as he can be, Gilbert’s best friend and sense of purpose is his mentally challenged brother Arnie (Leonardo Dicaprio).   While it may be cliché for an actor to take a role of someone mentally challenged to earn praise, Dicaprio does deserve the Oscar nod he got for this role.   Not be crass, but as Nathalie Portman tells Zach Braff in Garden State: “Wow man after seeing you in that role I really thought you were retarded.”

Gilbert’s dark existence starts to get a little lighter when a broken camper van brings the adorable Becky (Juliette Lewis) into town temporarily.   As a girl who’s “been just about everywhere there is to go” Becky is both the complete opposite of Gilbert and just maybe absolutely perfect for him.

Gilbert knows his time with Becky is dependent on her grandmother fixing the motor and being with her makes him start to wish for a life outside Andora.   One night Gilbert even gets in the car and drives away, planning to get away “just like my brother Larry did” but his love for his family, as complicated and hard as they are brings him back.

The Grape family is one of the best and also most heartbreaking depictions of a family I’ve ever watched on screen.   What’s eating Gilbert Grape? isn’t light viewing but it’s a tender portrait of family and hell I could watch Johnny Depp onscreen in just about anything.   Except Tim Burton movies.

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