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A "Grape' worthy of fine wine

You may have seen those optical illusion artworks being sold by shopping mall vendors, the ones demanding you clear your thoughts, drink in all the supposedly ragged images and piece together a mind's-eye view of a lovely vision. This challenge is entrancing to some and irksome to others without the patience or focus required.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape is the same sort of offbeat art in cinematic form; a jumble of odd sights and emotions that add up to a deeply rewarding experience for anyone willing to wait for a cumulative payoff instead of a string of gee-whiz moments. It's a thoroughly American film with a distinctly European feel, populated by some of the most memorable characters seen on screen in years.

That isn't surprising, since the guiding hand behind What's Eating Gilbert Grape is Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, whose art house hit My Life as a Dog and his first U.S. production, Once Around, also dealt with eccentric characters in flux and in love. Hallstrom's deliberate way of establishing indelible moods and personalities is well-suited to novelist Peter Hedges' richly textured screenplay.

The final impression one gleans from Hallstrom's film depends on how intently it's recalled and analyzed. I'm not certain I've grasped it all in several hours of reflection. If nothing else, What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a film that invites such attention, a welcome break from the pat conclusions and dictated feelings most movies deliver. That's a blessing for serious moviegoers and a curse for those who expect the projector to do their thinking for them.

Gilbert Grape (played with quietly stalwart charm by Johnny Depp) is living a dead-end existence in Endora, a town filled with so many weird citizens that even creepy Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) feels at home. Gilbert's days are spent working at a mom-and-pop grocery, now threatened by the opening of a super supermarket down the street. Even his afternoon trysts with a bored housewife (Mary Steenburgen) are getting old. But, as she tells Gilbert, she knows he'll always be around.

Things are even more strange at Gilbert's ramshackle home in the country. Widowed Momma Grape (newcomer Darlene Cates) used to be a beauty, but now she's obese, a 500-pound albatross around the necks of Gilbert and his shrewish sisters. The only Grape unperturbed by Momma _ or the sameness of life in Endora _ is Gilbert's brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose mental retardation keeps him blissfully unaware.

Into this quirky community rides Becky (Juliette Lewis at her level-headed best), a perky free spirit whose vitality shows Gilbert there's a wide, wonderful world beyond the Endora city limits. Gilbert would love to see for himself, but his devotion to Momma and Arnie holds him back, although that's getting more tenuous each day. Sweet, frustrated Gilbert has a lot of bridges (or perhaps something else) to burn before he can leave.

This deceptively simple plot is fleshed out by memorable performances down to the least-seen bit players. Depp smartly underplays Gilbert's confusion, allowing the audience to experience it for themselves through his revealing eyes. But it's the sparkling, touching performances by DiCaprio and Cates that provides What's Eating Gilbert Grape with its tear-tugging heart.

Think about it. What groups in society provoke insensitive people to stare or turn their heads in disgust more than people who are extremely overweight or severely handicapped? The beauty of Hallstrom's and Hedges' story is that Momma and Arnie are thrust into centerstage without cloying sentimentality. We're repulsed at times _ Arnie's guttural voice and spastic movements and Momma's girth are truly unsettling _ but we eventually see the person inside.

One of the film's best moments occurs when Becky is introduced to Momma and looks her straight in the eye, after everyone else in Endora has gazed in awe only at her body. Cates shows us the pride beneath the fat, a suffocating mother who "never wanted to be a joke." When Momma's frustration evolves into determination, we feel every painful, positive step she takes.

Most amazing of all is DiCaprio, whose turn as Arnie has justly been rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In only his second film (This Boy's Life was the first), DiCaprio has established himself as one of today's leading actors, regardless of his teen age. Many actors would focus their energies only on Arnie's tics, but DiCaprio aims for his soul. We could either laugh at Arnie or pity him, but DiCaprio makes us love him.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape was one of a handful of films that wasn't shown to Tampa Bay critics in time for the 1993 top-10 lists, since it was given a slow release in major markets first. I guarantee if it had been previewed in time, Hallstrom's film would have made my list. The 1994 movie year will have to be just as extraordinary as 1993 to bump it off my next year-end honor roll.


What's Eating Gilbert Grape Grade: A-

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Cast: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Darlene Cates, Mary Steenburgen.

Screenplay: Peter Hedges, based on his novel

Rating: PG-13; profanity, violence, sexual situations

Running time: 117 min.