What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Lasse Hallstrom, 1993)
Category: Dysfunctional family films. Americans have generally been lucky to avoid the kinds of major problems that have affected other civilizations (i.e., colonialism, potato famines, the bubonic plague). In the absence of these actual life-and-death problems, family issues have been central to our cultural output. In dysfunctional family films, such as East of Eden and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, characters are frequently racked with guilt while dealing with sick, overbearing or just mean family members. While those do seem pretty rough, I’d rather deal with that sort of thing than starve to death.
However, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has the added sadness factor of being a film about mentally challenged people. Aside from being super sad, these films, like Holocaust films, often feature actors seeking Oscars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it's an important issue that deserves attention. It’s just something that I, and Kate Winslet, noticed. Other examples of films in this genre include I Am Sam, Forrest Gump and Charly.
My familiarity with this issue: I have little personal experience with these issues. My parents are very nice, and my brother (frequent derisive blog commenter Tony Krizel) and sister (whacko environmentalist Lauren “Loafy” Krizel) are cool. We all get along quite well now. Back in high school I had your usual issues with curfews, and my parents and I often butted heads about their strict prohibition of illicit drug use in the house. But on the whole, I’d say it was nothing out of the ordinary.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Gilbert Grape lives in Endora, a place where nothing much happens. The only times the police got (sic) something to do is when Gilbert's autistic brother Arnie tries to climb up on the watertower nearby. Taking care of Arnie is mostly Gilbert's task which can be pretty demanding, at least while you are working at the local grocery store. Then one day Becky and her grandmother passes (sic) through Endora getting trouble with the car. Gilbert falls in love with Becky, but gets problems when he tries to find time for his own private life.” (I’m beginning to notice that these IMDb plot summaries often suck. I suspect this one was written by a non-native English speaker. Plus I’ve always wanted to write (sic) about something. Such a feeling of superiority.)
What I thought of the movie: It certainly has some good things going for it. Darlene Cates’s performance as the obese, housebound matriarch of the Grape family was excellent, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Arnie (for which he was Oscar-nominated; see previous theory) pretty much owns the movie. Both characters can be considered the burdens on Gilbert, alluded to in the film's title, but both actors really bring out their humanity. The film is well-shot and well-directed, and depicts Gilbert’s small-town ennui in an affecting, non-#whitegirlproblems way.
However, I can’t say that the movie completely worked for me. Most of my problems with it stemmed from the character of Becky, played by Juliette Lewis, and her romance with Gilbert. I actually liked Juliette Lewis a lot in two other films (Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives) that were released in the two years prior to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. But in this movie, she’s kind of terrible, and that torpedoed any chance of me being at all engaged by her relationship with Gilbert, which is kind of central to the plot. I know what they were getting at here: Depp is going for a kind of quiet, brooding James Dean-type thing, and Lewis is supposed to be a breath of fresh air to bring him out of his family-related despair. But Lewis’s attempt at being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl falls way short, probably because being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl requires more being interesting and less reading your lines as if you’ve just been shot by a tranquilizer gun. So that took away from the emotional impact the film might have had otherwise.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: Well first let’s talk about Johnny Depp’s hair. Would you just look at that hair. That is the kind of hair that I wish I could have, that long, straight, center-parted, Tim Riggins type look. I wish I could relate to that. (Side note: Juliette Lewis's hair is shorter than Johnny Depp's in this movie. Which a) looks dumb and b) is never a good sign for a relationship.)
As we discussed yesterday, I cannot personally relate to films set in boring small towns in the Midwest. But I think this one brought home something bigger that I did relate to. The theme of escaping your family/small town and doing bigger and better things is a familiar one in American culture, from It’s a Wonderful Life to the Born to Run album to the TV series Friday Night Lights. Not coincidentally, those are three things I love more than just about anything else in the universe. (In my first post I made a list of things that made me cry. I somehow forgot to include "just about every episode of Friday Night Lights.") It is a theme that is particularly resonant to a lot of people, even those who, like me, cannot personally relate to it. And there are moments in this film where it really resonated.
Another thing I love is making fun of bad dialogue/acting (the all-time winner in this category can be found here). This happened a couple of times during this film, courtesy of a sometimes-clunky script and Juliette Freakin’ Annoying Lewis. Sitting in a cornfield gazing out at a beautiful vista with Gilbert on their first date, Becky says, “I love the sky. It’s so… limitless,” a line which Lewis somehow manages to make even more boring than it looks on the page. At the end of their first date, Gilbert says, “I had a nice time tonight,” and Becky mumbles back, “I know.” (It's been done.) So in the moments where I wasn’t feeling sad, I had some good distractions.
How I felt after the movie ended: Pretty sad, but mainly only when I think about a couple of really distinctly sad moments in the film. (Interesting side note to consider as the blog continues: this was not only the first film so far that was not based on real events, but also the first one whose ending I did not know, more or less, before I started watching. Will this fact cause these types of movies to have a greater effect on me?)
Zaree Gliddon, a friend of the blog, requested that I indicate whether or not I cry at each film I watch, and while I have not yet full-on cried during these first three, I came the closest a couple of times during this movie. One instance was when Gilbert, at the end of his tether, hits Arnie for the first time. DiCaprio really earns it there. Arnie is an incredibly frustrating person for Gilbert and his family to deal with, but watching him stand there, bloodied and helpless, really breaks your heart. The movie really captures the difficulty of living with a mentally challenged individual, no more so than in this scene. The second was when the mother, self-conscious about her weight, reluctantly allows Gilbert to introduce her to Becky for the first time, and says, “I haven’t always been like this.” Cates’s delivery of that got me a little choked up. And then Juliette Lewis had to ruin it by opening her stupid mouth and speaking words. Goddammit.