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‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 04, 1994

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is a tad too precious. One of those movies that wants to address life's quaint wackinesses, it's full of characters who are quirky, lonely, bizarre or retarded. There's something intensely earnest about the project. But there's something equally manufactured, starting with the casting of Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis.

As central character Gilbert Grape, Depp's performance is respectable, but he's just reining in the cover-boy attractiveness. In dramatically stylized movies like "Edward Scissorhands" or "Cry-Baby," his face worked (literally) beautifully. But in a movie full of realistic acting, you need presence behind the presence -- the kind the youthful Jeff Bridges, for instance, brought to "The Last Picture Show."

As for Lewis, her tiny bag of aren't-I-cutely-offbeat? talents was emptied in "Cape Fear." She tries to inject variety into her act by changing her hairstyle. But she merely ends up resembling a style-conscious chicken.

Iowa grocery clerk Depp carries multiple responsibilities on his slim shoulders. The heaviest, literally, is his 500-pound mother (Darlene Cates), who refuses to set foot outside the home. Depp has to cater constantly to her couch-potato tyranny. Under her unrelenting mass, Depp notices, the house's rickety infrastucture is starting, ever so slowly, to give. He's also in charge of mentally retarded brother Leonardo DiCaprio, a spunky kid who has surpassed all doctors' predictions that he'd die during childhood, and is about to turn 18. He's fairly manageable except for his penchant for climbing the local water tower -- to the consternation of the police.

Even in the love department, Depp is encumbered. Lonely housewife Mary Steenburgen's request for grocery deliveries is code for other services. Depp complies with the same sense of duty he brings to everything else.

When Depp meets just-passing-through Lewis, whose motor home has broken down, it's time, finally, to gratify his own impulses. But DiCaprio remains dependent on him, Steenburgen is psychotically smitten and Cates isn't going anywhere.

He has nothing to worry about. Screenwriter Peter Hedges's formulaically engineered script will solve everything. As DiCaprio's birthday party and Lewis's departure simultaneously loom large, Depp's problems -- and everyone else's -- will achieve neat, harmonic convergence. Director Lasse Halstrom (who made the delightful "My Life as a Dog") and cinematographer Sven Nykvist do their best to disguise the predictability with their own grace notes. But all the music in the world can't hide a tone this false.

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