Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (Paramount, 1994)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

While the Grammy Awards were on in the first place, on Sunday, February 11, my new client Ken showed me a quite remarkable movie from his collection: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, one of those small-town dramas that sometimes seems to be drowning in its own quirks but nonetheless makes an effect and is genuinely moving. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is dated 1993 on imdb.com but was actually released a year later than that, and it was made by Swedish director Lasse Hallström but based on a novel by American writer Peter Hedges, who also got to do the screenplay. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is set in the tiny rural town of Endora (was it deliberately named after Agnes Moorhead’s mother-in-law-from-hell, literally, character on the 1960’s TV series Bewitched?), whose location is ambiguous even though the movie was filmed in and around Austin, Texas. Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp in his youthful, long-haired prime —though he turned up on the Grammy Awards with similarly long hair and not looking all that different) is the put-upon second son of Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates). At least 15 years before (Depp, narrating the film in character, says 17 years, but if it’s been that long, just who fathered his 15-year-old sister?) Gilbert’s dad hanged himself in the family basement, and the once-beautiful Bonnie went to seed, never left the house again and eventually blew up to an enormous size. The pre-release promotion on this movie went to great lengths to explain that, rather than take a normal-sized actress and body-pad her to the character’s ultra-zaftig proportions, director Hallström and his casting people (Jo Edna Boldin, Hal Masonberg and Bronni Stein) actually found a woman as big as the character and cast her, though according to imdb.com she was once small enough that actual photos of the young Darlene Cates were used as the pre-transformation pictures of Bonnie Grape.

The other members of Gilbert’s dysfunctional family are his younger brother Arnie (a young and almost unrecognizable Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s suffering from a mystery illness that could kill him at any time, though it doesn’t seem to affect him physically — he has a mania for climbing trees and the town’s water tower — and its main effect is psychological: he’s — what is the politically correct euphemism these days? “Learning-disabled”? — and his sister Amy (Laura Harrington). Gilbert is a clerk at the town grocer, whose business is being killed by the Foodland (read: Walmart) big-box store that has just opened up the street, and he also does deliveries. One of his delivery clients, Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), is having one of those older woman/younger man affairs with him that seems an obligatory coming-of-age ritual in rural-set movies these days, though there’s a grimly amusing scene in which Gilbert has to stop one of their trysts in mid-fuck when he sees Betty’s husband, insurance salesman Ken Carver (Kevin Tighe), bouncing up and down on a trampoline in a position that just might enable him to spy on his wife making it with the grocery boy. Eventually Gilbert finds a sort-of girlfriend his own age, Becky (Juliette Lewis) — I liked the irony that she had her hair in a sort of butch crewcut while Gilbert was wearing his considerably longer — who lives in one of the campers that drives into town during the tourist season and which Gilbert and Arnie get one of the few kicks of their lives watching. It took me a while to realize it but, while there are virtually no plot similarities between What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and It’s a Wonderful Life, Johnny Depp’s character here is quite similar to James Stewart’s in Frank Capra’s classic: a small-town boy with visions of leaving (Gilbert has an older brother who actually did leave, though all we see of him is a framed photo in a military uniform) and making his way in the broader world, but whose plans are constantly being interrupted by the needs of his family and friends. It’s the sort of movie that’s stronger in its parts than in the whole, though Hedges’ script is carefully “planted” with clues whose significance becomes apparent as the film takes place.

What one remembers are individual scenes: the talk of the imminent arrival of “Burger Barn,” a national fast-food chain whose restaurants come pre-assembled and actually look like barns (though the obvious inspiration is McDonald’s — down to the shrieking yellow-and-red uniforms and décor of the establishments, courtesy of a survey the real McDonald’s owners took to find what colors were psychologically most effective at getting people to feel hungry — the barn-like appearance reminded me of the long-defunct Pioneer Chicken, which also ran its restaurants out of barn-like buildings); the actual appearance of the Burger Barn, interrupting the attempts to give Ken Carver a suitably solemn funeral; the sick jokes made by the town’s morticians about the corpses they handle; and the ending that conversation, which Gilbert overhears, sets up. The film ends with a marvelous suspense sequence in which Bonnie decides she wants to ascend the stairs of her two-story home and lay in her bed on the second floor (though according to imdb.com Darlene Cates only walked up two or three stairs and Hallström repeated the shot to make it look like she was ascending the whole staircase, there’s a marvelous will-she-make-it-or-won’t-she? aspect around the whole scene). She gets into the upstairs bed, only to suffer a heart attack and die, and rather than let the morticians handle her (he’s already overheard someone say, “They’re gonna need a crane to get her out of there” — ironically, we’ve already seen a crane earlier in the movie getting Arnie down from the water tower he’s climbed) Gilbert decides to burn down the whole house, sacrificing his living space for the sake of giving his mom a D.I.Y. cremation without letting those assholes from the mortuary tell sick and nasty jokes about her size. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is a genuinely touching movie, quirky as all get-out but also oddly moving, and powered by nicely understated performances by Depp (he’s become a pretty relentless overacter in a lot of his vehicles since, but in this one he was marvelous), DiCaprio and Cates (who’s had three credits on imdb.com since, episodes of the TV series Picket Fences and Touched by an Angel and playing “Athena the Fat Lady” in a TV movie called Wolf Girl, and in August 2012 she announced that she’d slimmed down — relatively — from 575 to 331 pounds and wants to act again).