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Top 100 Movies Of The 1990's: #79 What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

Box Office: $10.0 Million

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Oscar Wins: None

Movierankings.net: 85/100

Available To Stream: HBO Max

What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a quirky story that shows that kindness is the best route but can be an exceedingly challenging one as well. Watching it now, it's also a reminder of how great and talented of an actor Johnny Depp was before he did a Keith Richards impression for a decade and then lost his mind. I hope I'm wrong but I cam't imagine there is any way he could play such a normal character ever again.

This was also the movie that earned Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar nomination. He's so amazing as Gilbert's mentally challenged littler brother Arnie that you often forget you are watching DiCaprio. The drastic mood shifts and physical tics seem so realistic, it's really impressive when you consider he was was only 19 when he made What's Eating Gilbert Grape. In my mind, I had remembered this movie and then Titanic making him a superstar but this came out four years before Titanic did. Even after Titanic, he wouldn't be in a good movie again until five years after that when Catch Me If You Can and Gangs of New York both came out. DiCaprio really didn't become the actor we know until nine years after this.

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If you haven't seen this, it takes place over roughly a two week period in the life of Gilbert Grape (played by Depp) and his family. He has an 500 pound mother that he loves but is deeply ashamed of. Gilbert's father hung himself a decade earlier. Besides his brother Arnie, he also has two sisters. The older one acts as a maternal figure around the house and his younger sister is a teenager in high school. Everyone seems either angry or sad they are in this trapped situation but no one has any idea how to get out of it. Everyone in the family loves each other but that's not enough to make any serious changes. Life is really hard for these people. 

Everything changes when a young women (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother's truck breaks down in town. It takes a couple weeks for the right part to come in and Depp and Lewis fall in love. The elements of this story are all things you've seen before but the characters themselves are very unique and Depp and DiCaprio are especially brilliant.

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This is not a perfect movie. The second act is dominated by a storyline of a housewife (Mary Steenburgen) who is having an affair with Gilbert. It feels rushed and stalls the parts of the story we want to see like Gilbert interact with literally anyone else. Every other interaction he has, whether it be his family or with Juliette Lewis or even his friends (great casting of total opposites Crispin Glover and John C. Reilly) is so much more interesting and enjoyable.

This was a box office bomb when it came out. It never cracked the Top 10 during its entire run (topped out at 13) and that was even with the attention it got for the DiCaprio Oscar nomination. This was after Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon which were both considered successes at the time so the studio had higher expectations for this. 

I'm not going to lean on the crutch of saying a movie like this wouldn't be made today. I think something close to it could be (just less quirky) but it would have just been released directly through streaming. I don't think there is room in modern movie theaters for something this small. But that was also true in 1993 when this came out. It's not like it made much money then either.

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This isn't a story about redemption and there are no heroes. Gilbert is a very good person and the main character. He's also a human being and does and says some pretty lousy stuff. This is a simple story but with people that are very complex. Director Lasse Hallstrom would later go on and direct The Cider House Rules which was met with more acclaim when it came out. That movie also has characters that are very cared for and deep but the story ends up collapsing on itself in the third act. What's Eating Gilbert Grape is both a simpler story but also a better one.

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79. What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

80. 12 Monkeys

81. Stir Of Echoes

82. Mission: Impossible

83. Total Recall

84. Quiz Show

85. For Love Of The Game

86. Being John Malkovich

87. Men In Black

88. Scream

89. Alive

90. Three Kings

91. Glengarry Glen Ross

92. Die Hard With A Vengeance

93. The Blair Witch Project

94. Twister

95. Dirty Work

96. Election

97. Tremors

98. Any Given Sunday

99. The Wedding Singer

100. Clerks