Few performers have chosen a path to stardom as eccentric as Johnny Depp’s. This sly, handsome, rather anonymous young actor has set himself a bizarre challenge: He seems to be trying to attain a state of complete emotional passivity on screen — to become a youth-movie idol by doing as close to nothing as possible.

Depp’s Nowhere Boy persona was born when he played the title character in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. With his thresher digits and punk-slave bodysuit, his eyes peering out from undead black-and-white makeup that made him look like the Cure’s Robert Smith as painted by Edvard Munch, Depp’s Edward was the ultimate misunderstood adolescent — a forlorn, spectral waif, so shy he barely spoke (but, oh, how those peepers begged for love!). Depp had a lovely presence in Edward Scissorhands, and the fact that he was able to strike such a plaintive chord without really doing anything must have proved irresistibly seductive to him. For last year’s Benny & Joon, he learned some makeshift acrobatic tricks, but his face, still sad, had become a teasing blank, a mask of baby-soft inscrutability.

His latest vehicle, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is more of the same — it’s Nowhere Boy, Part III. The difference is that this time the entire film shares his attitude of poker-faced disaffection. Depp, his hair dyed orange and grown into long, straight hippie locks, is Gilbert Grape, the wayward elder son in a family of unhappy weirdos. The Grapes live in a ramshackle farmhouse in Endora, Iowa, a bare-bones country town that looks like it hasn’t changed in 30 years. Though set in the present, the film has the pre-pop feel of the early ’60s, an era when canned goods seemed like technological marvels.

Trapped in this sound-asleep hamlet, this time-warp slice of Americana, Gilbert fritters away his days by working at a tiny grocery store, a true dead-end occupation considering that nearly everyone in Endora shops at the big, shiny supermarket on the other side of town. His job is enlivened only by his deliveries to Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), a lusty homemaker who shoos her kids out of the house the moment Gilbert arrives so she can attack him on the kitchen table. (On his own, he doesn’t look as if he could muster the energy to uncork his libido.)

Gilbert fantasizes about leaving Endora, but he’s stuck there — chained to his noisome family, which he has held together since his father killed himself, and to the vagueness of his own dreams. An unlikely linchpin, he helps keep the peace between his bratty teenage sisters; his mentally retarded younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a way of climbing the local water tower and getting stuck halfway up; and his helpless, 500-pound Momma (Darlene Cates), who hasn’t left the house in seven years. Is this any way for a young man to spend his life? No, but Gilbert doesn’t realize what he’s missing until he meets Becky (Juliette Lewis), who arrives in town in a big silver camper.

Photographed with a beautiful, soft-edged nostalgia for rustic American landscapes, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape strikes an unlikely mood of morose whimsy. Instead of milking Gilbert’s family crises for dysfunctional farce, the director, Swedish-born Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, Once Around), understates and humanizes the material. Hallstrom’s touch is disarmingly gentle; he has made a comedy as gossamer as a butterfly’s wings, one that stares at its characters with ironic affection. Yet, like its hero, the movie stares a little too much. Gilbert Grape is sweet and occasionally touching but also wan and remote. It tweaks your sympathies without ever firing your endorphins.

Despite Depp’s tender melancholy, the performers who stay with you are those who dare to crack the surface of their characters’ alienation. As the morbidly fat Momma, Darlene Cates, far from turning herself into a waddling one-liner, calls up reserves of regret, shame, and emotional prickliness; she evokes all the testy overweight people stuffed into armchairs across Middle America. And Leonardo DiCaprio, the vibrant young star of This Boy’s Life, gives an audacious and technically amazing performance as Arnie, the retarded 17-year-old whose soul, for all its anarchic buoyancy, remains trapped inside a compulsive network of grunts, guffaws, and grimaces. This is one nowhere boy who commands your attention. B-

What's Eating Gilbert Grape
  • Movie
  • Lasse Hallstrom