From the dark mirth of Mark Twain, to the domestic chaos of Kurt Vonnegut and Edward Albee, to the everyday dysfunction of The Simpsons, satirists have gotten under the placid surface of American life to find the demons lurking below--the idiot uncles and poisoners of pot roast, the third-generation addicts and unpunished swindlers that every family is so desperate to hide from view, and to survive.
Lasse Hallstrum's What's Eating Gilbert Grape, adapted from Peter Hedges's 1991 novel, lands squarely in this gleefully subversive tradition. But it's such a sweet-tempered movie that even the most surreal secrets swirling around its fictional everytown of Endora, Iowa, provoke more sympathy than scorn. Witness the embattled Grape family. Momma (Darlene Cates) has grown so huge over the years that her bulk threatens the very existence of the family's ramshackle house, and her children must carry the dinner table to her permanent berth in the living room. Young Arnie Grape (Leonardo DiCaprio, last seen as Robert DeNiro's abused son in This Boy's Life) is afflicted with an unnamed mental disorder and might not make it to his eighteenth birthday party. Amy and Ellen (Laura Harrington and Mary Kay Schellhardt) seem doomed by devotion and aimless rebellion, respectively.
Twenty-something Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), the centerpiece, suffers most of all. The reluctant head of a fatherless household, he's shackled to a numbing job at a failing mom-and-pop grocery, and he has no outlets for either his anger or his passion. Devoured by family and worn out by a hectoring older mistress (Mary Steenburgen), he's wasting away, day by day.
The film's weirdly tilted Americana doesn't stop there. In tiny Endora, the gray-faced undertaker shakes his head at the current lull in business, the construction of a prefab Burger Barn outlet is cause for a major celebration, and a stop at a behemoth supermarket in a nightmare mall is something like Original Sin. The local insurance salesman bounces on a trampoline in his discount-store suit. In fact, almost everywhere in Gilbert Grape, ordinary people and familiar events take on the dreamy sheen of larger meaning and the subconscious. It's as though we are looking at common life through a microscope, under the influence of a hallucinogen.
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Gilbert, a rebel with no cause, is shaken out of his torpor only by the arrival in town of a drifty airhead named Becky (played by drifty airhead Juliette Lewis). It is Becky, passing through with her mother via house trailer, who stirs both love and wanderlust in him, although her observations are the stuff of comedy, too. "I love the sky," she rhapsodizes. "It's so...limitless."
Hallstrum, the Swedish director who filled My Life as a Dog with the same kind of sly, off-kilter sweetness we find here, probably knows less about Iowa than the Iowans do, but he brings a fresh view to the disturbed subtext of American small-town life. He also treats novelist Hedges's out-of-step characters with care; in the hands of a broader director, they might have been reduced to caricatures. Depp, the likable tree-trimmer of Edward Scissorhands and the anchor of Benny and Joon, is a perfect fit here: His soulful gaze and his gift for deadpan work just right, and the scenes in which Gilbert sings his autistic brother down from atop a water tower and evades his crazy mistress's corny Babbitt of a husband are gems.
In the end this satire on the hidden undercurrents of American life becomes a commentary on family solidarity. When the Grapes most need to, they come together, and Gilbert can begin to see a life over the horizon. When he wrote Our Town, Thornton Wilder never imagined an America like this, where institutions and values come and go like ghosts, but the Grapes' cleansing final act would please even him.
This odd social comedy isn't for everyone, but it might be the sleeper of the year.