PG-13 for a bunch of little things. While there is no nudity or actual sex, the protagonist is having an affair with a married woman. There's a suicide that happens off camera. The movie both comments about fat shaming while also fat shaming. There's language, death, and abuse. It's got some heavy content, but it definitely reads like a PG-13 movie.
DIRECTOR: Lasse Hallstrom
Yeah, this is a big one. I don't have too many of these anymore. Sure, on the grand scale of the cinematic canon, I don't know if What's Eating Gilbert Grape is at the top of it. But it is somewhere on that list of movies that a lot of people have seen that I just never really got around to seeing. There was a time when I aggressively pursued all of the cinema greats. I still kind of do, but there are very few of the really popular ones left. Trust me, this isn't sadness. I suppose that I'll never really have one of the biggies to look forward to, but there are still insanely great movies out there. This is all a roundabout way of saying that there is a rich wealth of amazing film that just never got around to being popular.
Which kind of brings me around to What's Eating Gilbert Grape. There is so much good about Gilbert Grape, but at the same time, there is stuff that kind of irks me as well. To be honest, I think I skipped over Gilbert Grape because I didn't expect much out of it. My initial judgments about the tone of the movie was right: this is a bit of a sappy manipulative tearjerker. I tend to react poorly to this. I'm not saying that I shouldn't be sad at movies or that movies shouldn't be sad. But I kind of want to get there on my own. There are major moments in the story where I should have been really moved and these may have been the least effective moments for me. Arnie getting arrested didn't do anything to me. Mama dying kind of felt out of left field. Burning the house down just seemed silly. I know. I'm not being emotionally vulnerable. But I also got that these choices were meant to get me to grab for a tissue and I just wasn't really feeling that. The film as a whole, when it came to the mood it was shooting for, just kind of missed for me.
I'm going to Gilbert Gripe about one more thing before I move onto what I really dug about the movie. Because if push-came-to-shove, I have to say that I enjoyed this movie. But it is interesting to think that what we considered so progressive last generation comes across as kind of gross this generation. I think that Gilbert Grape is now starting to deal with the problems that Gone with the Wind originally dealt with. At the time, I could see the movie being seen as brave. The most memorable characters in the film are a morbidly obese woman and an autistic boy. Darlene Cates as Momma is heartbreaking and I applaud her for taking the role. She must have to had been extremely emotionally strong to take a role simply because of her sheer weight when that weight would be a talking point in the film. But for all of its talk about how Momma's a person and not a sideshow, it also fat-shames her for jokes a lot. There are jokes made about her weight. I get it. It was 1993. It was a different time. It's also absurd that the entire town would get such a kick out of seeing a morbidly obese woman. At one point, in a cluster of people looking at Momma leaving her house, a man straight up takes out a camera and emotionlessly takes a photo of her. I want to comment on how America is loaded with women like Momma and that she probably wouldn't be considered a freak, but Darlene Cates herself was actually made famous by showing up on an episode of Sally Jesse Raphael entitled "I'm Too Fat to Leave My House."
Then there's the autistic problem. We're just entering the era of representation of allowing people to play their own disability. Again, I didn't love The Peanut Butter Falcon, like everyone else on the planet did. But I did respect the choice to cast the lead actor in that role. Again, I know it was 1993 and that young Leonardo DiCaprio is a very talented actor. But I also feel like Leo is playing "Hollywood Autism" made famous by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. This is the kind of performance that's meant more for impressing Oscar judges than actually bringing attention to the cause. A lot comes down to 1993, but 2021 doesn't find this performance all that exciting. It's good, but it just really feels dated at this point.
But I told you I liked this movie! I didn't lie. And do you know why I liked this movie? Because it has the most accurate title of any movie that I have ever seen. The title as the theme of the movie is just perfect. There's a really fine line that this movie has to walk and I think it nails it. The story is about mental health. It's advocating for mental health. Gilbert comes across as a good guy who keeps screwing up in realistic ways. He loves his brother and love-hates his mom. Part of what the story is about is the knowledge that Gilbert should be used to his lifestyle. He's been taking care of his mother and his brother his entire life. He has no real support system. Everyone else is looking out for number one, leaving Gilbert in a role that is completely unfair to him. And we all know that, if Gilbert decided to abandon all of these responsibilities and roles thrust upon him, he would be a villain in this story. So when he runs off into the night, we as the audience become both sympathetic and critical of this choice. Gilbert has too much responsibility with little actual motivation to do it outside of goodwill. For all of his faults, there's almost something saintly about him. I mean, he shouldn't be sleeping with an older married woman, but it is one of his few releases. (I'm definitely not advocating sinning, especially when it comes to adultery. But I'm more stressing his humanity in the face of such pressure.)
So when Becky comes to town, she offers a third option that he has never thought of before. Prior to Becky, his options were "Accept a life that is devoted to others at the cost of the self" and "Be the villain who abandons everyone in hopes that you can find a modicum of happiness." Becky's offer is the ol' Kraft Mac and Cheese commercial of "Why not both?" Admittedly, it takes Momma's death to allow him to take up this offer. But he's allowed to think of himself if he has a support system. As much as the other family members have responsibilities when it comes to Arnie and Momma, these responsibilities act more like a chore chart. Instead, Becky loves Arnie like Gilbert does and that's what it takes. It takes a group of people working together to make sure that good people don't drown.
It's a great sentiment and the movie communicates the message well. Yeah, I'm an emotionally stunted guy a lot of the time, so weepy movies often come across as cliche for me. But even when you divorce the mood from the content, the movie still holds up. I dug it. Probably not as much as other people adore this movie, but it overall works for me.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.