What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Sometimes it’s kind of nice to look at how Big Stars got started. Back in 1993, Johnny Depp’s career as a sex symbol/matinee idol was still burgeoning. Sure, he had done the seminal “21 Jump Street” on TV and had starred in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, but he was still a long way off from Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio was even more of a novice; this along with That Boy’s Life (same year) were his first starring forays.

Here, Depp plays the titular antihero, a brooding, laconic Older Son who takes care of his retarded brother Arnie (DiCaprio), his immensely obsese mother, and his two sisters. Oh, while sometimes servicing a married woman (Mary Steenburgen) and working at the local mom-and-pop grocery store. He’s a busy lad.

Gilbert spends about two hours brooding, usually keeping all of his feelings inside while trying to maintain control outside. No one other than Gilbert can control Arnie, who has a predilection toward climbing their small town’s water tower. (You’d think after he did it one time they’d put a tall fence around the thing, wouldn’t you?) But it’s not easy, and it’s getting more difficult all the time, and now Arnie’s about to turn 18, although he has the mentality of… well, I’m not sure. Someone very young.

I remember there being all of these accolades about DiCaprio’s work. Look, I hate to sound abrasive about this, but it can’t be more difficult to play a retarded character than one who is not, simply because the latter has to show a much greater range of emotions, Depp notwithstanding. All DiCaprio had to do was look and act goofy. When I watched the movie, I kept reminding myself that Arnie was retarded; otherwise, I’d be calling for him to get smacked a few times – he’s that annoying.

Competing with Arnie in the annoyance olympics is Juliette Lewis. No, not her character, Becky, but Lewis herself, an insanely ugly young lady who supplants her total lack of acting skill with a complete absence of personality. She’s dull looking and dull witted, every syllable uttered in a monotone. Somehow, Gilbert falls for her (and vice versa, duh).

What’s weird about that is that Gilbert actively chooses Becky over Mary Steenburgen. There’s no way anyone should be choosing Mary Steenburgen over Juliette Lewis. I’d take today’s Steenburgen (age 53) over 1993’s Lewis (age 20) any day. Steenburgen is lovely and graceful, and she can actually fill out a pair of jeans very nicely. Lewis looks like a scarecrow that’s no longer scaring any crows; call it Crack Whore Chic. But perhaps I’m being unkind.

The story is rather pedestrian. You keep waiting for something interesting to happen, but it never does, so it winds up being a character study, which is a euphemism for “slower than watching paint dry.” It’s fairly predictable until the end, which comes so far out of left field you’ll wonder if Arnie’s condition hasn’t affected everyone.

Among the supporting cast, John C. Reilly, Steenburgen, and Crispen Glover turn in the best work. But how good could this be expected to be with an awesomely awful title like this?

Some well-regarded critics liked this, and I’m sure there are sentimental saps who’ll fall for anything in a movie. That’s the audience here.

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