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'Grape' shows Johnny Depp in one of his best performances (*** 1/2)

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Posted: Friday, August 1, 2008 10:00 pm

If I had to pick a least-favorite filmmaker, Lasse Hallstrom would be high up on the list. With films like "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat," he has proven that even discriminating audiences and critics will embrace plodding trash, just so long as it's draped in a veil of pedigree and legitimacy.

To me, he embodies the "boring European" stereotype, but there is at least one movie on his resume that prevents Hallstrom from being completely worthless: "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," an overlooked triumph of a film that perfectly captures the introspective, low-key moodiness that the filmmaker always strives for but almost never achieves.

Johnny Depp (in one of his first great performances) stars as the title character, a 20-something small-town denizen who dreams of traveling and making a life for himself but is instead stuck at home working a dead-end job at the local mom-and-pop grocery store. He's chained down his mentally retarded kid brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first Oscar-nominated role), and his morbidly obese mother, Bonnie (Darlene Cates), whose condition has rendered her a couch-ridden shut-in.

Gilbert spends the vast majority of his time and energy taking care of Arnie, who is preparing to celebrate his 18th birthday yet requires more looking after than a toddler. Nobody helps Gilbert and, worse yet, nobody really appreciates him, either. He has given up his shot at happiness in order to fulfill his duties as a son and brother, but all anyone can do is get down on him for not trying hard enough.

The entire cast is exceptional, with Depp and DiCaprio being the obvious stand-outs. Depp creates a character who is at once tremendously admirable yet as human and flawed as anyone else. He injects the film with pathos, and made me identify with Gilbert to an almost unbearable extent. DiCaprio is equally effective in a showier role that might have devolved into a caricature in the hands of a lesser actor, and gives us a sneak peak at the brilliant intensity he would show in later films like "The Aviator" and "The Departed."

Although "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is anchored by these two performances, supporting players like Mary Steenburgen (as a local housewife having an affair with Gilbert), John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover (as two of Gilbert's buddies) lend the film a gentle quirkiness that never goes overboard. They help ensure that despite some strange plot elements, the film always remains grounded in harsh reality.

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is rated PG-13 for profanity, violence and sexual situations.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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