| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
Breakfast of Champions (1999)
What could be funnier than Nick Nolte in a dress?
If you answered "Nothing," then run, don't walk, to the nearest theater showing
Alan Rudolph's new film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s 1973 novel Breakfast of
Champions. But be sure you're in damn good shape, because that nearest theater may be
hundreds of miles away. Hollywood Pictures is releasing this movie like it's in the
Witness Protection Program.
The vote of no
confidence may not be entirely deserved, but it's easy to imagine the studio's marketing
team throwing their hands up in despair after viewing this downbeat, elliptical
curiosity. Bruce Willis, in his most hilarious hairpiece to date, stars as Dwayne
Hoover, owner of the Exit 11 Motor Village in Midland City, U.S.A. Dwayne is the latest
victim of the free-floating existential suburban dread that has been running rampant
through American movies for the past few months. He greets each new day with a
pistol in his mouth, before plastering on the taut grin of desperation that is his armor
against the world. The town that surrounds him is the sort of kitschy, primary-colored
nightmare populated by pop-eyed, wide-angled cartoon grotesques familiar from Tim Burton
and John Waters movies of the 1980's. Dwayne's similarly suicidal wife Celia (Barbara
Hershey) has medicated herself out of daily existence with the wonder drug Relax (slogan:
"Goodbye, Blue Monday!") and his son has re-christened himself "Bunny"
and taken up a lounge lizard gig at the local hotel bar.
Everyone in Midland
City is on permanent mental vacation, and all their flights of fancy center around an
enchanted island paradise. It's Hawaiian Week at Exit 11 Motor Village, and the spirit of
golden sunsets and fruity tropical drinks, as embodied by the musical exotica of Martin
Denny ("Quiet Village"), hovers over the sterile, deadened town like a storm
cloud ready to burst. And burst it does, with frantic, semi-coherent results.
Most of the actors
try hard - way, way too hard. It's as if Rudolph has directed them to wring laughs out of
the script through sheer physical exertion. Nolte (as Dwayne's sales manager Harry Le
Sabre) and Albert Finney (as eccentric science fiction writer Kilgore Trout) both sputter
and grunt and sweat their way through their scenes, but comedy rarely results from their
efforts. Willis fares better, but the nature of Dwayne's identity crisis is so vaguely
delineated that he doesn't have much to work with. Mostly he ends up reacting in horror to
the sight of his own face, the sight of other people's faces...and just about everything
should come with advisory stickers: "WARNING: Any attempts at adapting the
contents of this novel to the silver screen may be hazardous to your career."
Nolte, at least, should have learned his lesson after the ill-advised Mother Night
disappeared without a trace. And does anyone remember Jerry Lewis's triumphant dual role
in 1984's Slapstick of Another Kind? Please, hold your applause until the
end. It's not necessarily that his style is impossible to translate (imagine, say, Steven
Soderbergh wrapping his fractured time syntax around Vonnegut's masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five),
so much as the fact that most of the attempts to date have been so literal-minded. Breakfast
of Champions, in particular, is so riddled with the author's fragmentary first person
interjections, it's like a rock skipping across his stream of consciousness. Vonnegut
himself plays a major role in the book's climax, but he's nowhere to be found in the movie
(except in a cameo as a TV commercial director).
Rudolph throws a ton
of visual trickery at the screen in hopes of livening up the proceedings. Dwayne's
thoughts ripple through a cartoon brain superimposed on his head; mirrors warp into
dimensional gateways; Buck Henry appears on the thousand dollar bill. But the only image
with lasting impact is the signature shot of Dwayne's forced, pained smile transformed
into a literal mask as the employees of Exit 11 Motor Village greet him with cardboard
replicas of his face pasted over their own. It's almost a dead ringer for a scene in Being John Malkovich - which, come to think of it,
is the movie you should be seeing instead.
- Scott Von Doviak