'Gilbert Grape' puts the heart in the Heartland

March 04, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Questions to ponder: Why do outsiders sometimes make the best movies about the inside?

Why do foreigners understand America so much better than Americans? What do they do in small towns, anyway? And, finally, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"?

The only clear answer available is to the last one: The old things are eating at Gilbert, the largely obsolete things -- duty, loyalty, love and the pain of all of them. For the Swedish director Lasse ("My Life As a Dog") Hallstrom's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is the rarest of all movie events, a fundamental celebration of virtue.

Gilbert (Johnny Depp) is the oldest son of the decaying Grape tribe, of the decaying town of Endora, Iowa. The Grapes live in a decaying house out on the prairie, under the broad Midwestern sky. For amusement, they watch the Airstream trailers zoom down the highway toward brighter possibilities.

The Grapes are less a bunch than a strange assemblage of human flotsam and jetsam: Momma (Darlene Cates) weighs 500 pounds and for two years hasn't moved off the sofa, where she sits in a miasma of self-pity and Jabba-the-Hut density. Gilbert's two sisters, Amy (Laura Harrington) and Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), are as decent as their circumstances permit, which isn't very. They pine for normalcy under the pressure of high school conformism, but the tension between the weirdness of their inner lives and the banality of their outer lives has twisted them in strange and bitter ways.

And finally, there's poor Arnie, almost 18. Leonardo DiCaprio has earned an Academy Award nomination for the role, and he certainly deserves it. Arnie is that saddest of all lads, the boy with the broken toys in his head. And DiCaprio throws himself into the role without an ounce of vanity or self-consciousness: Arnie's mad innocence, his innocent madness, the dirty-faced, wet-nosed recklessness of his life is one of the most poignant and twisted things you'll see on a screen. For poor Arnie, more than them all, bears the family curse of the father who abandoned them at the end of a rope he tied himself one day in 1978.

The weight of all these pathologies comes to bear on Gilbert, who works as a stock boy in the local (decaying) grocery store and who has become a solemn, dutiful young man, illuminated by a single hope: to keep the frail vessel that is his family intact. But he, too, is decaying. If he has an impetuous streak or dreams or hopes, they've long since been eroded. He simply gets through his life trying to please his various masters -- mostly Arnie, whom he loves so desperately and cares for so totally, but who is becoming harder and harder to handle.

Depp can be irritatingly coy, as he was in the NutraSweet-loaded "Benny and Joon," but his performance here is tight and controlled. He doesn't wear his decency like a hair shirt but like a plaid one: tatty and worn but from long repetition brilliantly fitted. It's a wonderful performance -- completely at ease with itself and not afraid to show confusion, despair and the occasional irrational anger. No posturing anywhere.

The thrust of the story is Gilbert's ultimate liberation. A young woman comes to town: Juliette Lewis, stranded when her grandma's Airstream breaks down. She represents every dream Gilbert has repressed, though not in movie-phony ways. She's not hot or sexy: She's decent, smart and capable; she's been in the world. For Gilbert, she is the world. Can Gilbert free himself from the crush of duty? Or, more interestingly, does he really want to?

What's so tough and impressive about "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is not only its love but its amazing lack of sentimentality. Arnie, for example, is no wild child, no anthropomorphized wolf ,, boy, but a desperately sick kid very close, in his sloppiness, to killing himself. (He likes to climb the water tower and enjoy the commotion as the firemen come to rescue him, and he loves the danger of falling.) His presence is grinding.

And Ma: Hallstrom has the guts that no American director would have to make her pathos all the more biting by acknowledging the subversive comedy in her obesity. When she finally gets into a car, the vehicle sags to the right like a gag in a silent movie. You know you shouldn't laugh, but Hallstrom isn't interested in what should or shouldn't be, only what is. And you howl.

It should be added that the great Sven Nykvist, Bergman's long-time cinematographer, shot the film, and he gives down-home Iowa the same treatment that Hallstrom does from Peter Hedges' script (based on his own novel) -- tough, but with moments of strange beauty. He makes Iowa look achingly real, which would seem to be the movie's grace note: the dusty reality of jerkwater towns and scabby main streets, populated by hicks in overalls who eventually reveal themselves to be heroic knight errants on a quest for the purest of the pure.

'What's Eating Gilbert Grape'

Starring Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

Released by Paramount

PG-13 rated

*** 1/2

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