Taking in a fresh viewing of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, I was struck by the implausibility of the film's existence. Not because the 1994 movie isn't any good, but that simply the stars aligned and this simple, subtle tale of one young man's fight to get away from his home didn't become irrevocably disfigured at some point in the creative process. It's a sweet, disarmingly quirky movie that shouldn't be, but it is – Lasse Hallstrom's elegiac adaptation of Peter Hedges' novel (Hedges also penned the screenplay) is beloved by a rabid cult of fans and sits as one of the more odd-ball films from the early Nineties.
So much written about the film has been devoted to the truly incredible performance of Leonardo DiCaprio (who made his one-two debut punch with this film and Marvin's Room), who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award as Arnie, but, as Hedges and Hallstrom rightly note in the commentary track, Johnny Depp has the much more difficult (and arguably thankless) role of Gilbert, the less flashy and often overshadowed older brother. His wounded, faintly angry work as the cornered Gilbert grounds the film in reality and gives it a palpable sense of authenticity; Depp's, however, isn't the only accomplished performance in this well-chosen ensemble. Juliette Lewis shines as the beautiful traveler Becky, Mary Steenburgen radiates suburban desperation as spurned housewife Betty Carver, newcomer Darlene Cates registers powerfully as the shut-in matriarch of the Grape family, with Darlene Cates, Mary Kate Schellhardt, John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover also registering.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a sharply focused character study that approaches its subjects from odd angles; Depp and DiCaprio are near the top of their game here, with director Hallstrom ably marshaling a superb supporting cast. The town of Endora is a beautiful wasteland, despised by Gilbert as a place he can't wait to escape. Whether or not he ever musters the courage to do so is one of the film's lingering questions, left to be contemplated like one of the stunningly gorgeous sunsets often glimpsed in this beloved film.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks crisp and clean, marred by a few flecks of dirt here and there, it's still a sturdy, vivid print that belies the decade and change that's passed since What Eating Gilbert Grape's theatrical exhibition. Sven Nykvist's breathtaking cinematography looks lush and very sharp.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a film reliant mainly upon dialogue so the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doesn't get much of a workout here. There's the odd bit of surround activity and the evocative score, by Alan Parker and Bjorn Isfalt, fills in nicely. A Dolby 2.0 stereo track and optional English subtitles are also on board.
Paramount has done a nice job of assembling some worthwhile supplements for this "special collector's edition," delivering upon the promise of that tag, rather than making a hollow mockery of it. Hallstrom and Hedges sit for a relaxed, informative commentary track, detailing the (in some cases) wholesale revisions that were necessary to make Hedges' novel more cinematic. It's a fascinating listen. Also included are a trio of featurettes, all of which are presented in fullscreen: the 10 minute, 44 second "The Characters of Gilbert Grape," the five minute, 32 second "The Voice of Gilbert Grape" and the seven minute, 50 second "Why We Love Gilbert Grape." The film's theatrical trailer, a photo gallery and trailers for Reds: Special Collector's Edition, Titanic: Special Collector's Edition and Failure To Launch round out the disc.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a minor masterpiece of mood and tone; by all rights, it should've been mishandled by the studio and turned into a wretched piece of camp. As it is, Lasse Hallstrom's beautifully executed adaptation of Peter Hedges' novel stands as one of the most beloved films of the Nineties, an impossible perfection that only improves with each subsequent viewing. Highly recommended.