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WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; written by Peter Hedges; produced by Meir Teper, Bertil Ohlsson and David Matalon for Paramount. Starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis. Rated PG-13.


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If collaborations like this will result from the new global economy, I'm all for it.

Here we have a classic American story, set in the Heartland, with an All-American cast. But it's directed by a Swede, who gives the whole thing a quirky European twist that is absolutely delightful. What a treat!

It's an absorbing psychological study, a sweet first romance, an examination of true family values, and an actor's showcase. And, except for a few predictably pat scenes (near the end, by which time we don't really mind), it's 100 percent successful on all counts.

Gilbert's (Depp) life is designed to make the rest of us count our blessings. Being stuck in a dead-end job (clerk at a mom-and-pop grocery in competition with a giant supermarket) in a dead-end town (supposedly Endora, Iowa, although the movie was filmed near Austin) isn't bad enough.

He also has to be surrogate father to two sisters and his irrepressible, retarded brother, Arnie (DiCaprio). And he feels both sorry for and ashamed of his enormously overweight mother (Darlene Cates).

The only way Gilbert can survive such crushing demands is by keeping any dreams and desires he has for himself securely bottled up inside. That's worked for him so far, but when a perky traveler (Lewis) and her grandmother are stranded in Ondora, he begins to want something better.

As the sane, decent center of the movie, as well as the anchor of his family, Gilbert is a complex, compelling hero perfectly played by Depp. His quiet restraint speaks volmes about love, responsibility, guilt and self-realization.

Arnie provides (not accidentally) a complete contrast to Gilbert. He is wildly exuberant about life and the simple pleasures he finds everywhere. As uncontrollably active as a two-year-old, he has to be watched all the time, or he'll take off to climb the town's water tower, or otherwise put himself at risk.

If you've never seen DiCaprio before, you might marvel at how director Hallstrom was able to get so profoundly retarded a person to perform so well in his movie. Well, DiCaprio isn't really retarded, he's just an incredible actor.

As strong as this year's Oscar field is for best actor, I was a little disappointed that he wasn't nominated for last spring's This Boys Life. He is up, of course, for supporting actor in Gilbert Grape, though the two roles couldn't be more different. Since he's only 19, we can look forward, I hope, to many more wonderful performances from this kid.

The rest of Gilbert's cast is outstanding as well, but the real beauty of this movie is how they all work together to give us a warm and affecting (though slightly off-center) look at a slice of real life.

March 16, 1994

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