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MOVIE REVIEW : Life’s Sorrows Taste Sweet in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ : The movie converts despair into uplifting anecdotes and serves as a lullaby for the dysfunctional family generation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Grape family is like an entire week of guests on “Donahue” or “Oprah.” They’re dysfunctionally functional--by all rights their lives should be disastrous but somehow everything comes out OK. Gilbert (Johnny Depp), the brother who holds it all together for his brood in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” has a gift for sanity. With so much nuttiness crowding in on him, he holds a steady course. He’s the family savior who neglects to save himself.

The Grapes live together in a ramshackle homestead on an isolated patch of acreage in small-town Iowa. Their heartbreak began years ago with the suicide of Gilbert’s father. Younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), soon to turn 18, is mentally disabled, possibly autistic and wasn’t expected to last beyond his 10th birthday. His mother (Darlene Cates, who was, in fact, discovered on a TV talk show about overweight women) tips the scale at about 500 pounds and camps out in the living room while her meals are wheeled in to her. She hasn’t left the house in seven years. Gilbert’s two sisters (Laura Harrington and Mary Kate Schellhardt) moan and grouse about their lives.

Quirky, heartfelt whimsy seems to be making a comeback in the movies. “Benny & Joon” was a surprise hit earlier this year and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (selected theaters) could almost serve as that film’s companion piece. Movies like these convert despair and mental illness into folksy uplifting anecdotes. We will reach the Promised Land if only we can “accept” ourselves and our families. It’s all so nursery-school simple. “Gilbert Grape” and “Benny & Joon” serve as lullabies for the dysfunctional family generation--that’s the core of their popularity.

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Gilbert is the saint of the story--he’s like Aidan Quinn in “Benny & Joon,” who devoted himself to his disturbed sister’s welfare, and he’s a bit like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” too. He’s a do-gooder whose beneficence undercuts his own happiness. Director Lasse Hallstrom gives Johnny Depp so many loving big-screen close-ups that he seems to be enshrining the actor--can the Nobel Peace Prize be very far away?

Gilbert needs an angel to match his own angelic self and he gets her with Becky (Juliette Lewis), an itinerant free spirit who camps on the outskirts of town in her grandmother’s trailer. Becky is even a good physical matchup for Gilbert--her punkish spirituality matches his. (Depp at times looks like a pre-Raphaelite Fabian Forte.)

Becky isn’t fazed by the Grapes. She gets Arnie to overcome his fear of swimming; when she’s finally introduced to Momma Grape, she’s the model of tact and caring.

Hallstrom and screenwriter Peter Hedges, adapting his novel, people the small Iowa town with a crotchety assortment of harmless eccentrics. Their small-town “normality” is the dippiest thing about them. The Grapes turn out to be--surprise, surprise--among the most levelheaded in town. That’s the way it usually is with these whimsical fables: “Normal” loses out to nutty every time.

Betty (Mary Steenburgen), a love-starved housewife, lusts after Gilbert while her husband (Kevin Tighe) is out of the house; she keeps calling into the grocery store where Gilbert works for some personal delivery service. Gilbert’s best friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) dreams of opening up a local Burger Barn; Bobby (Crispin Glover), the undertaker’s son, sizes up the populace as if he were already measuring their coffins.

Hallstrom and Hedges are satirizing small-town life, but they’re also canonizing it. They wring laughs out of the Grapes predicament, but they also try to wring tears. (When Momma gets into the family car, there’s a shot of it puttering down the road tipped to one side that gets a big laugh.) There’s nothing cruel in their approach, but there’s something a bit opportunistic: They want extra points from the audience for being humanitarians.

The relationship between Gilbert and Arnie has “Of Mice and Men” vibes, but it strikes a responsive chord in a way that the rest of the film doesn’t. Most of the credit for that goes to DiCaprio’s performance.

Actually, it hardly seems like a performance. DiCaprio, who was also seen this year in “This Boy’s Life,” works with the kind of minute clinical observation that Dustin Hoffman used in “Rain Man.” As far as it goes, DiCaprio’s performance is astonishing, but its very authenticity is a little off-putting. He’s such a rigorously honest actor that he avoids all the obvious hokum.

You’ve got to admire him. The filmmakers and just about everybody else in the cast head straight for it.

‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’

Johnny Depp Gilbert Grape

Juliette Lewis Becky

Mary Steenburgen Betty Carver

Leonardo DiCaprio Arnie Grape

A Paramount release of a Matalon Teper Ohlsson production. Director Lasse Hallstrom. Producers Meir Teper, Bertil Ohlsson. Executive producers Lasse Hallstrom, Alan C. Blomquist. Screenplay by Peter Hedges, based on his novel. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Editor Andrew Mondshein. Costumes Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Music Alan Parker, Bjorn Isfalt. Production design Bernt Capra. Art director John Myhre. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for “elements of mature subject matter.” Times guidelines: It includes some mild sexual situations and scenes of Arnie climbing a water tower that may be frightening to small children.


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