Swedish director Lasse Hallström's film version of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" was an unconventional project, to say the least, that was met with mixed critical reactions and low box office during its release in the summer of 1993. Fortunately, time has been kind to this touching fable, and it has developed a strong following through its availability on VHS and DVD. Paramount Home Video now serves up a Special Collector's Edition that should please the film's legion of fans.
So, what exactly is eating Gilbert Grape? Well, take your pick. Gilbert (Johnny Depp) resides in the quiet Iowa town of Endora, a place that in his own words is "like dancing to no music." He works at the locally owned Lamson's Grocery, but everyone else shops at Foodland Supermarket. He lives with his widowed momma (Darlene Cates), who weighs over 500 pounds and has not left the house in seven years, leaving Gilbert and his sister Amy (Laura Harrington) in charge of the house and teenaged siblings Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) and Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is mentally retarded.
In his spare time, Gilbert hangs out with his two best friends—Bobby (Crispin Glover), the town mortician, and Tucker (John C. Reilly), whose ultimate career aspiration is to work at the Burger Barn. Gilbert also carries on a quiet, but torrid, affair with housewife Mrs. Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), though it is clear that his future holds little hope for escape from his monotonous existence. Little, that is, until he meets Becky (Juliette Lewis), a refreshingly worldly girl who is stranded in Endora with her grandmother after their truck breaks down. Becky provides Gilbert with a sense of meaning and self-worth for the first time in his life that in such a dull town seems nearly unattainable.
Jutting through this mosaic of genuinely odd characters is a larger-than-life study of the quirks and hardships that make up family life and the emotional strength it takes to make it through them. There is not much plot to speak of, but the film instead presents a moody, elegiac atmosphere of longing and desperation that is powerfully tangible, so much so that even during its broader moments there is just enough realism to ground the film and retain its believability.
Screenwriter Peter Hedges, who in recent years has gone on to pen such acclaimed character studies as "About a Boy" and "Pieces of April," made his debut with this film, adapting it from his own novel. He toned down most of the more cynical aspects of his book, but there is still a fair degree of bitterness here that prevents the film from becoming too sentimental. Under Hallström's assured direction, the cast was allowed to improvise much of the dialogue, giving the film a spontaneity that rarely seems forced or artificial.
Every role is played to absolute perfection, as each actor captures just the right balance of pathos and levity. There is not a weak link in the bunch, but Cates and DiCaprio are certainly the standouts. Darlene Cates was a newcomer to Hollywood, having been discovered by Peter Hedges after she appeared on an episode of "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show" to talk about her obesity. The nuance that she brings to Momma is beyond description, making the character at once sympathetic and imposing. It is truly a moving portrayal made all the more remarkable by the fact that Cates was not a professional actress. As the irrepressible Arnie, Leonardo DiCaprio gave what will no doubt remain one of the best performances of his career, if not the best. He earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his startling turn as the retarded boy, a performance so real that, in spite of DiCaprio's enormous fame, we actually forget that he is an actor.
One other very important star of this movie was not an actor at all but instead worked behind the camera. Legendary director of photography Sven Nykvist lent "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" his lush brand of stark simplicity and haunting moodiness that effectively conveys the somber atmosphere of a small Midwestern town. His vistas are breathtaking, and each shot is beautifully composed, adding even greater depth to an already impressive movie.
Paramount Home Video's brand new Collector's Edition is certainly an improvement over the film's last foray into DVD, which was essentially bare-bones. First we get a splendid, anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Some minor flecks are sprinkled throughout, but they are minimal and hardly noticeable. Colors are vibrant and warm, giving the picture a bold, deep texture. Blacks are rich and solid, and there appears to be no edge enhancement. All in all, the picture could hardly look better.
Audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 English surround tracks. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" features a characteristically quiet soundtrack, and both audio presentations suit the dialogue and score well. Sound levels are clear and free of background hiss and distortion, leaving us with a pleasing aural experience. English subtitles are provided, though they are a glaring yellow, which I don't personally care for.
Lasse Hallström and Peter Hedges sat down for a new audio commentary that is most welcome. Their conversation is relaxed and informative, offering stories of their experiences during production and in light of its aftermath. Both admit to not having seen the film in many years, and their frequent expressions of surprise are enjoyable and amusing.
After this we have a trio of featurettes that boast interviews with Hallström, Hedges and various cast members. The first one is the 11-minute "The Characters of Gilbert Grape," which gives perspectives on bringing the unique characters to life and the approaches that each actor brought to it. "The Voice of Gilbert Grape" is a five and a half minute feature that concentrates mostly on Peter Hedges' inspiration for and writing of the book and, eventually, the screenplay. "Why We Love Gilbert Grape" lasts eight minutes and gives each interviewee the opportunity to reveal favorite scenes and the reasons why the film has had such an impact on his or her life. These featurettes contain mostly new interviews, though DiCaprio's segments are pulled from older press interviews during the movie's production. Johnny Depp shows up looking very much like Jack Sparrow, and it is wonderful to see Darlene Cates after all these years.
A theatrical trailer, brief photo gallery, and a few sneak peeks at future Paramount releases finish off this Collector's Edition. It's a small collection, befitting of such an unpretentious film.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is that rare movie that touches on every emotion. You laugh, you cry, you feel crushed and uplifted with each passing scene. This is indeed a very special movie, one filled with moments of poignancy and undeniable beauty. The multilayered performances, rich character development, and expert visuals leave an indelible mark on the viewer, and this new Collector's Edition from Paramount delivers all of that and more, making this a must for the film's loyal fans.