- by Aileen Suresh
‘What’s eating Gilbert Grape?’ will make you feel liberated both emotionally and mentally. Set in small town American is a town called Endora Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is a hardworking American teenager struggling to support his obese mother, two sisters, and his mentally handicapped brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio). We are soon introduced to Becky (Juliette Lewis) who teaches Gilbert about how to enjoy life properly.
However, this is not your stereotypical American family comedy cheese fest. DiCaprio’s character is one that is probably one of the most unique for Hollywood. His true to life performance and comic timing let us laugh at his habitual nature of making awkward scenes, one of the most memorable being him announcing “the burger Barn!” in the middle of a funeral.
Gilbert’s relationship with his brother is heart-warming during their comic routines of “Where’s Arnie!” and Gilbert’s efforts for Arnie to take baths. Both these actors are at their best in their realistic portrayals of their characters; casting no doubt on their success to date. The chemistry between the two is fantastic yet not too overwhelming to the point of stifling the other actors’ performances.
Gates’ performance is heart wrenching and Lewis is perfect as the quirky adventurous girl but DiCaprio steals the show. With his maniacal laugh and tics, DiCaprio’s performance is both mesmerising albeit at times, uncomfortable to watch. In fact this is probably DiCaprio’s best early efforts in his acting career. If this film had a stronger budget and marketing it could have propelled this film to the top of the greatest film of the year.
However the simplistic nature of the film shows how beneath the comedy lies a tale about striving to achieve the American Dream. Gilbert’s love for his brother is heart-breaking as he juggles both his work and support for the family, in an almost barren land. There is no sense of hope, as the land represents Gilbert’s limbo like state of mind of wanting to find his dream yet being tied down by his family duties. Gilbert is almost imprisoned by Endora and as Betty (Mary Steenburgen) states she knew Gilbert “will never leave” suggesting how Endora will keep him captive. The opening of the new Foodland chain store threatening the grocery store where Gilbert works symbolises the capitalist nature of American society. By putting out local businesses, Foodland represents corporate greed and the vast mass production involved that shapes America today. The film depicts the struggles and hardships within American society in a realistic fashion, but also with an artistic quality as each scene fluidly moves between the pastoral landscapes next to Becky’s caravan, to the isolated location of the Grape’s house.
This sensational film is definitely one that would send you on an emotional roller-coaster. Prepare to have tissues, as you laugh, smile and cry watching the Grape family’s trials and tribulations as you travel through a whirlwind of comedy, drama and romance. A definite must watch. 4 stars
Aileen is a first year student, studying English and American Literature.