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The Wrath of Grape


By Katherine C. Raff

What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

directed by Lasse Hallstrom

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is reminiscent of "Gas, Food, Lodging" and "My Own Private Idaho" in its genre--realistic yet romantic, white trash splashed with a tinge of wistful mysticism. (It even opens like "Idaho," with two young men standing at the side of a long, deserted country road.) Movies of this kind take place in a grittier America, where people don't have cellular phones or facelifts--instead they are uneducated, and not very well dressed.

Depp plays Gilbert, a youngish person who might describe himself as a member of Generation X if he knew what that was. His life revolves around his family. The death of his father has left Gilbert in charge, and as his once-beautiful mother's way of mourning is to wallow in grotesque obesity, his older sister Amy (Laura Harrington) has taken over the maternal role. The Grape family is frozen in time. Momma's immobility reduces her to a permanent state of infancy, and mentally handicapped brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) needs constant supervision.

There is, however, one family member who breaks out of this stagnant framework of relationships. 15-year-old Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), with her blue eyeliner and frosted pink lipstick, is enjoying the process of growing up, and is often intolerant of the rest of the Grapes. Ellen's favorite object of criticism is Gilbert. Although Gilbert's face betrays the strain of keeping his family afloat, Ellen still haunts him daily with the words, "You gotta do better." And when Gilbert makes mistakes, or acts a little selfish, the whole town seems to echo her. He is even invited into the office of an insurance agent, only to be told, "What if something should happen to you? Stop thinking about yourself--think about them."

This town, Gilbert feels, is what keeps him from doing better. Home for the Grapes is Endora, obviously christened by screenwriter Peter Hedges after the verb "to endure." Run-down and depressed, Endora suffers from and delights in the great wheel of American capitalism. What keeps Gilbert planted in this morbid spot is Momma (Darlene Cates). Most of the time Momma sits planted on a sofa in front of the TV, where she sleeps at night, and where the girls dutifully pull up a table at meal times. Meanwhile, the house, which Mr. Grape built and died in, has rotted to the point where it can no longer bear Momma's weight; the floorboards begin to groan and shake under her occasional heavy footsteps.

Gilbert is angry at Endora for the way its inhabitants gape at his mother, and angry at Momma for being the thing that keeps him there. "Describing Endora is like dancing to no music," he laments, and so he breaks the tedium by waiting at the roadside for a caravan of Airstream campers which go by once a year. While Arnie squeals with pleasure at the sight of the campers, Gilbert dreamily says, "They're doing the right thing, just passing through."

But one trailer is not "just passing through." It breaks down in Endora, and from it emerges Becky (Juliette Lewis). Although boyish and elf-like with her close-cropped hair, Becky resembles the Momma we see in former "beauty queen" pictures. She captivates Gilbert and subdues Arnie with her deep, slow way of speaking, her simplicity and her ethereal charm. Becky's influence is so profound that she brings Gilbert to life; by the end of the film, Momma remarks to her son, "you shimmer and you glow."

And this movie "shimmers" and "glows," right to the finish, when we see a spectacular fire. Outstanding performances from every single member of the cast allow for wry, humorous moments even among incidental characters. We are inclined to wonder if this is really acting, so natural are all the personae. Leonardo DiCaprio has already reaped honors from many critics for his rendition of the retarded Arnie; and director Lasse Hallstrom (of "My Life as a Dog") deserves special recognition for his understated direction and unobtrusive choice of music. These characters are so real that we leave the theater expecting to see them on the street. Our perceptions are altered, and we delight in the fresh air and the hum of human voices.

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