Monday, 26 August 2013

1993 Retrospective: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (d. Lasse Hallström)

A/N: I shall do my best to roll these out with more urgency. Walter, my 1993 retrospective partner, has already taken a look at five Oscar categories of 1993. The first 1993 film I reviewed was not an Oscar nominee, but this less remembered family tale was.

With the name being a main indicator the focus of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape seems somewhat skewed. The name and much of the film’s hour suggests a hesitant coming of age story about eponymous Gilbert Grape. But the more I think of it, especially that final half hour or so, the more Hallström’s 1993 film reveals itself to be something different, and potentially more moving, or at least interesting. The crux of the film, I’d argue, is better explained as a backward glance to what family life meant not generally for those living in Endora, Iowa but specifically for the unusual and then not so very Grapes in that same town. But, I will accede, Gilbert is key to that.

Gilbert, our protagonist, is neither truly hero or antihero but a twenty-something in a wan state of existence. He lives with his two sisters, her mentally challenged brother and his morbidly obese mother. In the very small town of Endora where veryone seems to everyone his mother and his brother have become peculiarities. His mother’s weight is so legendary that children in the area sneak into the Grape’s yard, far from the centre of town, to espy a view of this wondrous feat. During one of these instances Gilbert glibly helps one of them up the window sill to get a better look. His friend Tucker looks at him in disappointed confusion. Gilbert’s response is a shrug. A telling indication of how he feels about a life. He works in a Grocery store where few of the townspeople shop, most of them enamoured with a new chain of superstores. He carries on an affair, in the same emotionally detached manner, with a restless and unhappy housewife. The only thing he approaches with any level of enthusiasm is his brother Arnie, who has an obsession with climbing the town water tower whenever he gets the chance.

Still, Gilbert’s state of near constant disinterest in most of what goes on in Endora. How can something so harmlessly nice be as suffocating, the film asks through Gilbert of the tow he lives in? I spoke of restlessness rampant in Dazed and Confused guiding the characters and the aesthetics and in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape it’s a pronounced state of ennui marking the tone, feel and movements. The thing is What’s Eating Gilbert looks fine, charming even but it’s not a visually memorable film. This is, unfortunately, not unusual for Hallström who is a directly I like occasionally (I particularly love his Chocolat which is not, by chance, his most visually certain film). The thing about the visual sameness of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is not that I’m not sure if the lack of edginess in the photography is a larger reflection on Endora’s lack of excitement or just a lack of much panache on the part of Hallström. I bring this up because it’s that movement between good serviceable direction erring on the side of bland that makes me wonder how much I like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Because I do like it, I’m just not sure how much.

....on the split narratives, and its best assets below....

Narratively, the film is surer of itself. Hedges’ screenplay is, yes, a bit split between late in life coming of age romance and off kilter family drama. The latter is more arresting and more efficiently handled. The former takes the form of an almost love triangle. Juliette Lewis (weirdly second billed for a wispy role) is Becky, a girl who with her grandmother is stuck in town when the truck towing their vehicle breaks down. She’s mysterious in a very surreal 90s love interest way while giving away little else than an easy charm and a surprising ability to relate to the mentally deficient Arnie who she approaches with a sincerity that makes her immediately attractive to Gilbert. This relation to Arnie is the most significant part of Becky because it moves the infatuation between her and Gilbert into something more than random movie-esque romance. Mary Steenburgen’s place as Betty, the housewife Gilbert has an affair with, is even less deftly handled even if Steenburgen’s acting is more effective. Betty’s dissatisfaction with her life in Endora is a story worth telling but feels out of place in this particular story. Especially since her own glints of smartness seem out of place with pursuing someone as deliberately disinterested in her as Gilbert. The conclusion to that ill-fated adulterous affair, too, does not quite seem to coalesce with everything going on around it.

Aaah, but the family dynamics – better in spades. For one, the entire family aspects is better written and acted with – yes – that much touted performance of Leo DiCaprio at the centre. It garnered the film’s single Oscar nomination and is as deserved as you heard. Parallel to Gilbert’s romantic issues is the family’s main “crisis”. Arnie’s eighteenth birthday is in a few days and the family is focused on ensuring that this birthday, for a child who the doctors predicted would not make it to ten. Of course, Arnie is least interested in things like birthdays still getting the greatest joys in life from the simplest of things. It’s overwhelmingly small-scale, even for family dynamics but added to the issue of Mama Bonnie Grape’s obesity it’s a significant emotional wallop. For, Bonnie Grape has not left the house in years and lives her life confined to the living room couch. She has grown to large proportions, eons from her beauty queen days and is as afraid of leaving the house for fear of mockery as her children are for her. It’s why the film reaches its highest bouts of profundity in moments related to Arnie or Bonnie. DiCaprio and Cates are giving the film's best performances, the former especially is so unbelievably unrestrained and vivid as Arnie. Depp deserves credit for believably making Gilbert's devotion to his brother work and for being such a reticent opposite to DiCaprio's earnestness. But it's not just good performances that make Arnie and Bonnie's arc thrive, it's where the film's truest moments lie. And it’s all systematically moving towards a conclusion and an image that I would not include here but I will say FIRE. That moment, for me, though sums up the entire film and it lends a sense of purpose to the prior amblings. Everything is coming to a head for the Grapes. For Gilbert, mostly. But for all of them. And the fact that even after this tragedy things still carry that same easy, wan charm reinstates that feeling of calm to the narrative and the plain prettiness of the photography makes even greater sense. The more things change, the more they remain the same, right?
The phrase “they don’t make them like this anymore” is the first thing that occurred to me when I rewatched this one last week. The phrase itself might seem an indication of quality in the way of good or bad but in the case What’s Eating Gilbert Grape it means as much as the face value indication of the phrase suggests. The way that plot developments come in the film, slowly moving and ruddily sanguine speaks to a style of small-scale filmmaking very much unlike the films released in theatres today. Of the films I’ve seen (first time and re-watched) in my journey back to 1993 it’s the first one that seemed to stand out explicitly as a creature of the time it was created. Not dated, but very much of the 90s. I keep wondering, with the way it’s so low stakes, just how essential a film it is. Visually, it is satisfactory, but unremarkable and yet it tugs at the feelings so. I want to give it a higher grade because it’s so warm and sincere even in its muddled moments that I can’t help but applaud it. It’s the difference between a very good family drama and a great family drama that could have been. Although, honestly, good is good enough I suppose.

Grade: B


Chip Lary said...

I like this film. It was the first movie I had ever seen Leonardo Dicaprio in and I still feel it is his best performance.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Of its time, yet not dated...perfect description. I confess, I find that Juliette Lewis stuff to be kind of nnnggh, though I guess otherwise it'd just be a "slice of life" flick (wait...what's wrong with that?!). I love the younger sister's performance.