Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

We watched the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape again while we were in Valencia, courtesy of our host’s DVD collection. I hadn’t seen it for some time – think I caught up with in on television once – and was keen to see it again, having had fond memories of its quirky approach and intriguing characters.

Furthermore I remembered that Leonardo di Caprio was very impressive in it. He still is. I don’t know that he’s ever done anything better. Di Caprio, who was only 19 at the time the movie was made, plays a mentally handicapped 18-year-old, and conveys the behaviour of such a person with such ease and assurance that the first time around I thought the actor must have been handicapped himself (not having realized it was di Caprio). Before this, he’d hardly been in movies at all; his acting life was in television in such programmes as Parenthood, Santa Barbara, Growing Pains, and even one episode of Roseanne. After Gilbert Grape he barely looked back, and was a super star within half a decade.

Johnny Depp was thirty when he made the movie, but plays someone who’s presumably in his early twenties. Before this he’d made a number of movies, but apart from one they were nothing to write home about, and he’d had appeared for some time in a tv series called 21 Jump St. The one memorable movie prior to Gilbert Grape was the strange Edward Scissorhands, his first collaboration with Tim Burton. A cartoon story performed by real life actors, it’s an extraordinary piece.

Gilbert Grape is full of scenes that stick in the memory: the husband drowning in a foot-deep paddle pool; di Caprio climbing the water tower; the mother climbing the stairs at the end or coming to rescue her ‘baby’. But a scene I’d forgotten was when the husband, an insurance salesman, tries to sell life insurance to Gilbert, who has just been with his wife, with whom he’s been having a rather one-sided affair. On the whole life insurance, for most of us, doesn’t rank highly on our priorities in life, and it’s the same with Gilbert, who actually thinks he’s seeing the man because the latter knows about the affair. It turns out altogether differently for Gilbert and the audience; like so many scenes in the film things aren’t quite what they seem and take different directions to what we expect.

Lasse Hallström as a director doesn’t usually grab me – his version of The Shipping News was a disaster from my point of view – but in this film he has everything in place. I don’t think he’s ever made another film to equal it.

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