Anyone who knows me will know that I'm a major fan of this film -- it's one of my favorites. I truly feel it's one of the most underrated films of the last decade. Director Lasse Hallstrom poetically visualizes Peter Hedges' angst-filled coming-of-age novel, bringing it to the screen in a funny and delicate way. Gilbert Grape has a quirky family, but you'll see a real family when you meet them. Brimming with originality, the character study not only builds one believable life, but a whole community of them.
It's a classic tale of a lethargic young man (Johnny Depp, ED WOOD), who lives in a small Mid-Western town named Endora and tries to do the right thing for his family. His younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio, TITANIC) is autistic and needs a lot of special attention — and even more patience — to deal with. Gilbert also has two sisters. The older, Amy, (Laura Harrington, PAULIE) was recently laid off from the local elementary school and the younger, Ellen, (Mary Kate Schellhardt, APOLLO 13) is a cocky teenager who works at the local ice cream shoppe. They all care for their 800-pound-plus mother, Bonnie (Darlene Cates, TV's WOLF GIRL), who hasn't left the house to years.
Outside of the family, Gilbert's two best friends are Tucker (John C. Reilly, CHICAGO), a handyman whose big dream is to flip burgers at the new Burger Barn franchise, and Bobby (Crispin Glover, WILLARD), an assistant mortician at his family's funeral home. Gilbert has long been having an affair with married housewife Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen, MELVIN & HOWARD), another person trapped in this small boring town. Then one day, Becky (Juliette Lewis, CAPE FEAR) and her grandmother (Penelope Branning, TV's GENERAL HOSPITAL) get stranded in Endora after their camper breaks down and Gilbert strikes up a relationship with the world-weary young woman.
The amazing character piece deals with small town life, feelings of shame for one's family and regret poignantly. The performances are amazing. At the film's center is the quiet sarcastic wit of Depp. Gilbert loves his family, but is frustrated with how they trap him in a small-minded world where live lobsters at the new super market become the talk of the town. How many days dealing with the same tiresome drivel and problems will it take for Gilbert to give up? DiCaprio is sensational as Arnie. If you didn't know DiCaprio wasn't mentally handicapped you'd think they cast a mentally handicapped actor. He creates an autistic young man who has his tics, but isn't just made up of tics, which allows the character to retain his humanity. It's a performance so amazing I can't due it justice in only a few words. Tommy Lee Jones' performance in THE FUGITIVE won the supporting actor Oscar over DiCaprio and not since HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY beating CITIZEN KANE as best picture has there been such a mistake. In addition, Darlene Cates makes an amazing and brave screen debut as the extremely over-weight mother. Her trip to the police station and her defiant walk up the stairs are heartbreaking cinematic highlights. Moreover, the final resolution couldn't be more poetic.
Hallstrom (CHOCOLAT) brings the best out of his actors and flows the action from scene to scene flawlessly. The cinematography is idyllic with its foreground and background compositions and its beautiful twilight-hour vistas. Like all humans these characters make mistakes, due to their personal issues, even when they are trying to do the right thing. Gilbert's trapped feelings are mirrored by his mother and brother, who are trapped by their disabilities. His relationship with Becky allows Gilbert to peek into a much wider world. But once he's had a taste of something more refined, can he ever go back to the same old, same old? I can't rave about this film enough. It touched me deep like few films do. It's a modern masterpiece that needs the recognition that it so rightfully deserves.
10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999) (***1/2)Previous Post
PRIMARY COLORS (1998) (****)