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'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 05, 1994

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is the most recent film from Swedish director Lasse Halstrom, the once-promising creator of "My Life as a Dog," and it's so aggressively offbeat that it may become what's eating you.

Set in the end-of-the-world town of Endora, Iowa, the picture is based on screenwriter Peter Hedges' novel about a young man named Gilbert who's trapped in a family that's sucking the life out of him.

Actually, there is a good idea for a movie hiding here, but Halstrom has buried it beneath a load of charmless shtick. Which is odd, because a quick description of family circumstances would make you think you were in Eugene O'Neill country. Years ago, Gilbert's dad strolled casually down to the basement and hanged himself, leaving Gilbert (Johnny Depp) to take care of his grossly overweight mama (Darlene Cates), who hasn't left the house in seven years. Gilbert is also in charge of his younger brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was born with brain damage.

Gilbert's situation is grim, and Depp, who plays a more realistic character here than in "Edward Scissorhands" or "Benny and Joon," gives a beautifully quiet performance that conveys the damage he's suffered without sentimentalizing it. But Halstrom seems to shy away from the emotional darkness in the story, choosing instead to pile on a lot of cheap jokes about being fat or mentally slow. Some people at the screening I attended laughed out loud at scenes like the one in which Gilbert and his friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) rush to shore up the supports under the floor where Mama sits -- which is clearly what Halstrom intended. But it wasn't the least bit humorous.

Not only are the gags unfunny, but they throw the film's emotional tone so out of whack that it hardly makes any sense. Nor do matters improve much with the arrival of Becky (Juliette Lewis), a pretty teenager who gets stuck in town. This is mainly because Lewis has played this sort of poetic imbecile before (in "Cape Fear" and "Kalifornia") and the act is getting old.

Aside from Depp, Mary Steenburgen has a few choice moments as Gilbert's frustrated lover, and Crispin Glover is endlessly weird in a small role as the town funeral director. DiCaprio's characterization of Arnie is a startling tour de force, a marvelous, completely unself-conscious performance. Halstrom never brings the story into focus, though, or makes it clear why we should pay attention to the struggles of these characters in the first place. The movie isn't standard issue in any way, and, periodically, it does have flashes of genuine originality. Unfortunately, they are too few and far between to make much of a difference.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape is rated PG-13.

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