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Gilbert Grape provides relief from the over-sweet

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@Eventname:WhatÕs Eating Gilbert Grape

@Eventdesc:Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Written by Peter Hedges.

Starring Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Darlene Cates.

Loews Nickelodeon.

@ByName:By Scott Deskin

@ByTitle:Associate Arts Editor

@Dropcap:WhatÕs Eating Gilbert Grape may well be the most honest and original film of the year. The main character, Gilbert Grape, is plagued through much of the film by a nagging ambivalence to the problems in his life. The ways in which he eventually confronts those problems, however, are so subtlely reached that the story can never be accused of plot manipulation or cliche.

@Body:Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is a grocery-store clerk in tiny Endora, Iowa, constantly subject to burdens over which he has no control. He continually has to keep watch over his retarded younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), to keep him from climbing the local water tower, at the behest of his abnormally large mother (Darlene Cates) who draws curiosity from the locals and is a source of stress on and within the home. GilbertÕs bickering sisters also worry him, for as the only fully lucid male of the household, he receives most of the responsibility (and the blame) when something goes awry.

GilbertÕs otherwise mundane existence is enlivened by friendships with Tucker, a handyman who views the opening of a new Burger Barn in Endora as a major career advancement opportunity, and Bobby, son of the local undertaker who constantly laments the fact that business is poor (i.e., no one is dying). Gilbert also is romantically involved with Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), the bored housewife of a slightly overbearing insurance salesman, who views Gilbert as an outlet for her unfulfilled sexual desires. But these elements in his life tend to mire him further within his paltry existence rather than liberate him from it.

ThatÕs where newcomer Becky (Juliette Lewis) enters the story. Becky, like her grandmother who accompanies her into town, is a drifter. She takes an interest in Gilbert after her grandmaÕs motor home breaks down, and opens GilbertÕs eyes to his hidden ambitions in life. When BeckyÕs free-sprited thinking sets GilbertÕs otherwise inertial character into motion, the elements in his world start, ever so slightly, to come unglued. First, when the police take Arnie to the police station after one-too-many ventures up the water tower, Momma Grape is forced to assume the responsibility of freeing her son from jail. And the ordinarily cheerful Mrs. Carver loses composure when Gilbert informs her of a prior commitment: she expresses disappointment in him because she thought he would Òalways be thereÓ for her.

WhatÕs Eating Gilbert Grape would be an unqualified success if not for the tendency of the story to introduce too many screwed-up lives and eccentric characters. But the skill of the actors and the underlying buoyancy provided by director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) give the characters credibility. Depp and Lewis are fine, but Leonardo DiCaprioÕs performance as Arnie Grape lends a certain levity and poignance to an otherwise quirky tale. DiCaprio (who received a Golden Globe nomination) does not portray the mentally-challenged Arnie as a the root of family dysfunction nor as a character we feel sorry for, but as a person who is loved by his family for who he is, not for what he isnÕt.

In short, Gilbert Grape is a film that tries to be different as a family drama and succeeds, largely due to the DiCaprioÕs inspired performance. In a season of overly-sweet holiday fare and weighty cinematic statements, WhatÕs Eating Gilbert Grape is a welcome change of pace.