Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, wrote Henry David Thoreau, and go to the grave with the song still in them. Thoreau easily could have been describing Gilbert Grape, the character Johnny Depp portrays in Lasse Hallstroms brilliant 1993 film, WHATS EATING GILBERT GRAPE. Gilbert is being eaten alive by family responsibilities and his own unfulfilled yearnings; too conscientious to desert his needy, morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates in a riveting film debut) and his retarded younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio in an Oscar-nominated supporting turn), Gilbert sacrifices his own dreams to care for others. But his gritty, day-to-day heroism is constantly overlooked; again and again, he puts forth his best effort only to be told that its not good enough, and hell have to do better.
Johnny Depps silent-movie skills serve him well here, as his tormented eyes reveal the hurt Gilbert Grape can never put into words. Consolation comes from a clandestine affair with a lonely housewife (Mary Steenburgen), but the possibility of real changethe dangerous, liberating kind that can permanently alter the track of ones lifearrives in the person of free-spirited Becky (Juliette Lewis), who reminds Gilbert of all that hes missing. Movies like WHATS EATING GILBERT GRAPE are not easily summarized, notes Roger Ebert in his rave review of the film. But some of the best movies are like this: They show everyday life, carefully observed, and as we grow to know the people in the film, maybe we find out something about ourselves. Ebert adds, The special quality of WHATS EATING GILBERT GRAPE is [
] its warmth, and Ebert traces that warmth directly to Johnny: Johnny Depp [
] brings a quiet, gentle sweetness that suffuses the whole film. Johnnys noble Gilbert is the still center of this complex and heartfelt story; the one who speaks for us, the one we know too well.
Posters for WHATS EATING GILBERT GRAPE carry the tagline, Life is a terrible thing to sleep through. Thoreau would have agreed: When its time to die, let us not discover that we have never lived.