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What's Eating Gilbert Grape

The road from novel to motion picture is an often perilous one, especially since the film industry considers the writer the least important part of the movie-making equation. Most filmmakers, it seems, are happy to throw the bulk of the source material out the window as soon as they've gotten their hands on the rights, using the novel's name and essential plot hook, and then discarding the rest of the story (which isn't to say that they necessarily win by traveling the other road, either — witness the number of naysayers who have taken Chris Columbus to task for being too literal-minded in his adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.) However, Swedish director Lasse Hallström so far has devoted most of his English-language film career to creating respectful versions of well-written novels, including adaptations of John Irving's The Cider House Rules, Joanne Harris' Chocolat, E. Annie Proulx' The Shipping News, and his beautiful 1993 comedy-drama What's Eating Gilbert Grape. The latter film is an interesting example of how a director can be utterly true to the events in a novel and yet create a completely different underlying feeling from the story — while still making an excellent film that stands on its own merits. Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) lives in the small town of Endora, Iowa with his housebound 500-pound mother, two younger sisters, and his retarded kid brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role.) Dad killed himself years ago by hanging himself in the basement; Gilbert has an older brother somewhere but, he says, "he escaped." Because of his family's limitations, Gilbert ends up the default caretaker for Arnie, who needs to be dressed and bathed and has a tendency to scramble up the town's water tower whenever he gets the chance. With a stoic, numbed acceptance of his destiny, Gilbert floats through a life filled with unremarkable sameness: He makes money as a delivery boy for the local grocer and is having an apathetic affair with Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), the wife of a local insurance salesman. The biggest news in town — news that's driving his boss to distraction — is the imminent arrival of a big supermarket promising such exotic innovations as a live lobster tank. "I just want to be a good person," is Gilbert's oft-repeated mantra, a justification for the quietly crushing monotony of his life as he tries to do his best by his mother, his brother, his boss, his lover, and his friends. When Becky (Juliette Lewis) comes to town on vacation with her grandmother, she's new and different and a refreshing change from the routine of life in Endora — so, naturally, Gilbert falls in love with her. Their romance gives Gilbert a glimmer of hope that life offers choices and changes, and his awakening is the catalyst for change that reverberates through his small world.

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Where Peter Hedges' darkly funny novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape gave readers Gilbert's story as seen through the character's wry, bored eyes, Hallström chose to make a more lyrical, languid film with an almost innocent lack of cynicism. Technically, the story is still the same — Hedges wrote the screenplay, and the events of the novel are faithfully put up on the screen. But whether Hallström never read the sardonic novel (a distinct possibility) or reading the book/screenplay in his secondary language gave him a different take on the material (also a possibility), the entire feel of Gilbert Grape differs enormously from the book, which is not a bad thing. We may not relate fully to Gilbert's inner life, nor get some of Hedges's intentional humor, but Hallström's direction evokes the quiet beauty and tedium of Gilbert's unremarkable existence. However, Hallström's most notable achievement is how well he treats his secondary characters: Gilbert's mother (Darlene Cates) is a sympathetic figure rather than the butt of obvious humor. Once "the most beautiful woman in Endora," according to Gilbert, she has become an embarrassment to her children — yet through their interactions we see the deep love that they have for her. Similarly, younger brother Arnie's behavior is infuriating and the task of caring for him is overwhelming, but DiCaprio's incredible performance gets across his sweetness so well that we completely understand Gilbert's devotion. The film's only off-note is Juliette Lewis, as there's a notable lack of chemistry between her and Depp (which could be either Hallström's intent or a result of her idiosyncratic performance). Gilbert Grape isn't a film for everyone, and it doesn't fall neatly into any of the usual comedy/drama/melodrama categories. But Depp shines with his usual underrated competence, and DiCaprio's star-making performance definitely makes it worth another look. Paramount's DVD release of What's Eating Gilbert Grape offers a vivid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), and the colors of those rolling Iowa landscapes and evocative sunsets appear both crisp and saturated. Audio is available in Dolby 2.0 Surround, and English subtitles are on board. Regrettably there are no extra features besides the theatrical trailer, which seems like a missed opportunity for a such a marvelous film. But for those who like to see it at least once a year, it's a pleasant item. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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