Friday, August 31, 2012

147. WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? (1993)

This is one of Lasse Hallström's most beloved films, I find from talking to people, and it is a remarkable study of the solidarity that can be found even in dysfunctional families which individual members are desperate to escape or transcend.

Scripted by Peter Hedges from his own novel, it's set in the fictional small town of Endora and documents the internal struggle of Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), the eldest child of a working class family dealing with the additional stress of a mischievous, mentally disabled brother named Arnie (Leonardo di Caprio, giving what may still be the performance of his career) and a morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates) who has not left their glorified shack of a home in more than a decade. Gilbert, already responsible for too much, works at a second-rank food market and medicates his self-loathing and familial shame in an affair with the married-with-children Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), but a new and more honest relationship with temporarily stranded traveller Vicky (Juliette Lewis) presents him with an opportunity to live a more honest, less shameful life.

I can see how this film could have meant considerably more to me, had I seen it earlier in life, especially if I had seen it when I was similarly trapped or planning my own escape from unhappy circumstances; it would have made the younger me feel less alone and given me hope. Seeing it from my present vantage, I have a lot of respect for it but only as a film, not as the personal exorcism or life lesson that holds some younger friends and acquaintences in thrall whenever they surf across it during its cable playdates. Those people will disagree, but I think the film would have been stronger and more powerful with an actor other than Johnny Depp in the lead; he looks too handsome, too styled, too worldly and too impassive to give this insecure, untravelled, emotional role its full due. But everything else this film needs is present and plentiful.

This film predates THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN but intriguingly shares the plot point of a protagonist, quietly suffering in a static and hopeless existence, who eventually avails himself of the opportunity to escape into a larger experience of the world, and of women.   

Viewed on Netflix.


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