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Film review: What's Eating Gilbert Grape

After stretching his acting talents by playing memorable eccentrics in "Edward Scissorhands" and "Benny & Joon," Johnny Depp tackles the title role in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" — but his is the most "normal" character in the movie.

This time, Depp is surrounded by eccentrics as the film explores life in a small town and the importance of family allegiance.

Gilbert is a conflicted young man, working at the local grocery store, which is getting heavy competition from a huge supermarket that has recently opened outside of town. And he's charged with keeping a close eye on his retarded younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a full-time job in itself. In addition, Gilbert and his two sisters also care for their extremely overweight mother (Darlene Cates), who has not left their dilapidated house in seven years.

There is no central plot to Gilbert's story, as first-time screenwriter Peter Hedges (basing the script on his own novel) and director Lasse Hallstrom ("Once Around," "My Life as a Dog") instead opt for a series of ensemble subplots, each with Gilbert at its center:

— Romance blossoms between Gilbert and a free-spirited young woman (Juliette Lewis) who is traveling through town with her grandmother.

— Gilbert doesn't know how to terminate his affair with an unhappy housewife (Mary Steenburgen), whose husband (Kevin Tighe) threateningly insists Gilbert call on him at his office.

— As Gilbert's best friends, John C. Reilly dreams of managing a Burger Barn franchise and Crispin Glover is the gossipy son of the local mortician.

— Arnie is about to turn 18, especially significant since he was not supposed to survive childhood, and the family is planning to celebrate.

— And Gilbert spends much of his time making uneasy jokes about his mother's weight, then feeling guilty about having done so, and chasing Arnie around town in an effort to keep him out of mischief.

What's most interesting about "Gilbert Grape" is that none of these multiple subplots veers into cliched directions (with the possible exception of the cartooney affair with Steenburgen, which seems out of sync with the rest of the film). And most of the humor springs from the characters rather than any sarcastic sitcom zingers.

There is a warmth and wit and insightfulness here that brings the film significantly up a few notches from the usual fare on this subject, and the performances are all excellent.

On the latter subject, however, DiCaprio's work as a retarded youth must be singled out as truly remarkable. His Oscar nomination as best supporting actor is well-deserved for his utterly convincing performance, which avoids condescending stereotypes and demonstrates how such children can be troublesome yet endearing.

Similarly, Cates as the mother brings a wonderfully tender quality to a role that could have been treated as merely a tasteless joke — indeed many other movies have done just that with similar characters.

And Hallstrom and Hedges are to be congratulated for offering us something different. It's not 100 percent successful, but it is both enchanting and surprising.

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is rated PG-13 for a few vulgar words, some violence and implied sex.