Viking Night: What's Eating Gilbert Grape
By Bruce Hall
June 25, 2013
On March 4, 1994, I took my girlfriend to see What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. This was not because I cared about the movie, but because I wanted to appear sensitive. I am happy to report that I succeeded, and I suppose I have Johnny Depp to thank for it. At the time, most people knew him from the unexpected success that was Benny & Joon, not to mention his turn as Tim Burton’s charming Goth-Pinocchio, Edward Scissorhands. Joining him was a group of actors who were either popular at the time, or have since gone on to success of their own. Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, and some kid named Leonardo DiCaprio rounded out a pretty solid cast.
I suppose most of the people who went were there to see Johnny Depp, but it couldn't have been all that many, since the film wasn’t particularly successful. But it received generally favorable reviews, with DiCaprio even being nominated for an Oscar. Also, he and Depp are now two of the biggest stars on the planet, no doubt sleeping on mattresses stuffed with hundred dollar bills and being relentlessly pursued by throngs of lusty women AND adoring studio executives.
So when it came time to produce an article for this week, and my first choice was unavailable, my current Significant Other suggested I take a crack at What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. It made sense – like many ladies, she adores this film, I was starved for material, and I will still take any opportunity I can to appear sensitive. But before I render my verdict, let’s recap the story. If you’re anything like me, Hammer was still an MC the last time you saw this movie.
Gilbert Grape (Depp) and his family share a battered old two story house in the dusty little town of Endora, Iowa. Gilbert’s father built the house and maintained it until his suicide some years before. Stricken with grief, his wife Bonnie (Darlene Cates) secluded herself inside and hasn’t ventured past the front porch in years. In that time she’s become badly obese, and something of an unfortunate legend around town. Gilbert and his sisters Amy (Laura Harrington) and Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) do their best to care for her and to keep prying eyes away. Gilbert’s best friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) helps him keep up the house, and it falls to Gilbert himself to act as guardian for the youngest member of the family, Arnie (DiCaprio).
We learn via opening voiceover that Arnie suffers from an unspecified and potentially fatal illness, and he is also mentally disabled in some way. It’s never clear whether the disability is the illness, or the illness caused the disability, but it's obvious that like his mother, Arnie presents a tremendous burden for the family. Gilbert works for a local grocer that’s slowly being driven out of business by the new Giganto-Mart across town, and Ellen works at an ice cream shop. It’s a low budget, hardscrabble life that takes a toll on everyone, but they’re a close knit family whose survival depends on that very bond.
Like most small town boys, Gilbert dreams of getting away, but he knows his family couldn't make it without him, and Arnie is utterly dependent on his big brother's care. Gilbert’s frustration manifests itself in small acts of cruelty toward his family, and latent resentment toward his mother and brother. So, he soothes his angst with Betty (Mary Steenburgen), the town MILF and most frequent customer at Gilbert’s store. But it's a hollow respite that only seems satisfying until a mysterious stranger comes to town. Becky (Juliette Lewis) is a free spirit who travels the country in a camper with her grandmother. She and Gilbert discover a shared appreciation for the little things in life - sunsets, ice cream cones, and moments of shared silence with that special someone. Gilbert realizes there's more to life than duty and obligation, and there's more to the world than the sleepy town of Endora. But the roots keeping him there go deep, and he learns that family bonds also function as shackles, depending on the day.