Watching More Movies: Leo DiCaprio’s Early Film ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’
Since the release of “The Lone Ranger,” I’ve read a number of articles lamenting the choice of roles Johnny Depp has taken as of late. So many of them have been caked in make-up, from four “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies to “Alice in Wonderland” and of course “The Long Ranger.” A large portion of those movies in that last decade span were directed by Tim Burton and their first collaboration in 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands” appears to be where all the capital-A “acting” appears to stem from. However, he did many “regular” roles between that and the first “Pirates” movie. Although that wasn’t my reason for seeing it, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is one of them.
Depp plays the titular character, who is the de facto patriarch of his rural family ever since his dad hung himself in the family’s basement. He has an older brother that escaped their dusty town of Endora, Illinois, but remains at home with two sisters (one the de facto matriarch; the other a teenager), a younger was-supposed-to-be-dead-already impaired brother, Arnie, and his mother who has ballooned so much she only leaves the couch in front of the TV to go to the bathroom (she sleeps in that spot and for meals, the kids drag the kitchen table over to her). Due to all this, Gilbert isn’t particularly pleased with his lot in life.
He’s tasked with looking out for Arnie, which is a job unto itself, as Arnie is prone to wondering off and climbing the town’s water tower. But, he also works at a Mom & Pop grocery store, which steadily loses business to a nearby chain, in order to bring in enough income to care for the family. The only real excitement in his life is delivering groceries to a lonely housewife, so she can cheat on her husband. This is all until Becky comes to town with her grandma and shows Gilbert how different a life can be were he not constrained by his responsibilities.
Though Depp and Gilbert are the eyes through which the story is told, Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie, in his second major film role, is the main attraction. He’s fantastic in this pre-pretty-boy turn, it’s almost a shame his acting career took a detour into superstardom before he reigned in the plum acting showcases again. Director Lasse Hallstrom has been known for these smaller semi-quirky stories and in this there’s nothing showy other than creating a small world closed off from a large portion of civilization. He’d continue to do the same in “Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat” (also starring Depp) and this is a worthy inclusion in his filmography. Though Depp again would continue to play “regular” characters for a while, perhaps the show-stealing performance DiCaprio shows here is where Depp first got the idea to go bigger. At long last, perhaps it’s time he takes a cue from this film’s director instead of his co-star, and shrink down again.