What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Starring Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Rated mature.

Now playing at the Vancouver Centre, Dunbar, Esplanade 6, and others

"It looks so small from the outside," says Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), "you'd never guess the girth of what's inside."

What's inside the crumbling shack he's describing is his mother (discovered-on-TV Darlene Cates), a 500-pound eating machine who hasn't left the house–maybe not even the couch–in the seven years since Dad hung himself in the basement. Also inside is Gilbert's mentally handicapped brother, Arnie (Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio)–who wasn't supposed to make it past infancy, but is now heading for his 18th birthday–and two sisters who represent the brat and surrogate-mom ends of the sibling spectrum.

The quote above–obviously a key to this funny, clunky, and strangely poetic movie–also refers to the unexplored expanse of Gilbert's feelings. Basically, the lank-haired lad has been so hooked on everyone else's needs, he's lost his own identity. Taciturn at the best of times, he really goes silent when Becky (Juliette Lewis), a bold new lass in the Podunk town of Endora, Iowa, asks him what he most wants in the world. Her question, however, and certainly her presence, serve to remind Gilbert that there might be more to life than bathing his brother, working in a dinky (and dying) grocery store, and having the occasional boff with a bored housewife (Mary Steenburgen).

There's not much more to the story, although that's not a bad thing in the hands of Lasse Hallstr?m. The clever Swedish director's tart, fragile sensibility, as evidenced in My Life as a Dog (sadly, I missed his ABBA: The Movie), crashed on impact when he landed in Hollywood for Once Around, the mixed-up Holly Hunter/Richard Dreyfuss vehicle. This time, he kept a core of his Scandinavian cohorts on hand, such as famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist (he has worked with Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen), who gives the film the ingenuous look of recently faded family photographs.

With first-time screenwriter Peter Hedges working from his own novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape is the unpunctuated sum of many quirky parts, including some very odd townsfolk, such as a cheerful, crew-cut undertaker (Crispin Glover) and an amiable handyman (John C. Reilly) who believes, religiously, that the town's new Burger Barn is the "cutting edge" of opportunity.

This emphasis on character and texture is full of pleasurable rewards–especially when the astonishing DiCaprio is on-screen–and there's enough growth and compassion to keep it from being a Diane Arbus freak show come to life. The film suffers from poor pacing toward the end, however, and there's not much chemistry between Lewis and Depp (who looks a bit sickly here) to spark things up. Still, their relationship does reflect the tale's unique (for Hollywood) sex-role chemistry. You see, Depp plays the passive, stifled caregiver reluctantly rescued by the more aggressive adventurer just a-wanderin' through–sound familiar, with the genders reversed?