'Breakfast of Champions'

For years, writer-director Alan Rudolph had wanted to film Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s "Breakfast of Champions," a dark, satirical comedy of middle-aged, Middle American angst, and Bruce Willis finally made his dream come true by signing on both as star and, in an uncredited role, executive producer. With Willis in place as Dwayne Hoover, the most successful car dealer in the Four Corners region of the U.S. and the most trusted citizen of Midland City, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, Barbara Hershey, Glenne Headly, Lukas Haas and Omar Epps came aboard.
     This starry ensemble dazzles, but the film never comes fully alive until its climactic 20 minutes, which are deeply moving. That's a lot to ask of audiences, but those who value the big attempt over the easy success--and especially those who know and cherish the novel--may well feel rewarded for their patience.
     Dwayne is becoming unglued. His ultra-square suits, the combed-over hair, the prissy round-lens glasses have become as much a straitjacket as the TV commercials he delivers with such gusto, which have made him such a local celebrity that he's a veritable deity. He's a modern-day Babbitt who has played by the rules and won big, only to find himself lonely and isolated and feeling increasingly at odds with the image and values he has projected so successfully.
     His wife, Celia (Hershey), has become a TV addict who never leaves the bedroom and who can no longer know whether to trust the man who is her husband or the man she sees constantly on TV. Their only son (Haas) is pursuing a career as a lounge singer at a local club, where he bills himself "Bunny Hoover" and seems to be taking his sartorial tips from Liberace. Epps plays a convict named Wayne Hoobler, who has become so obsessed with the similarity between his name and that of the car dealer he's come to know on TV that, once free, he heads to Midland City.
     Dwayne no longer gets comfort from his affair with his secretary Francine (Headly), who is terrifically sexy but is a cliche-spouting airhead with whom it is impossible to have any kind of genuine relationship. She does, however, come up with an idea that Dwayne grabs at as possible salvation: She thinks he should seek out writer Kilgore Trout (Finney), so obscure and unsuccessful that his work is published only in porn magazines and in paperbacks with lurid sexploitation covers. Trout, a scruffy mountain man with only a parrot for companionship, is hitchhiking to Midland City to be honored at its first arts festival, sponsored by a rich local eccentric and rabid Trout fan (Ken Campbell).
     Francine thinks maybe Trout will have some answers for Dwayne.
     Meanwhile, Dwayne's lifelong pal and crack sales manager, Harry Le Sabre (Nolte), is himself in an increasingly bad way, convinced that it's going to come out that he wears women's lacy red lingerie under his somber suits and when making love with his accepting wife, Grace (Vicki Lewis). Grace, who's the only liberated individual we meet, assures him confidently that "we're the only people in this town who have any kind of sex life--you should be proud." But he's not hearing her, and when Dwayne calls him into his office, he's convinced his boss has found out his secret; in fact, Dwayne is actually looking for moral support.
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     The men rant and rave, never really hearing each other at all. Willis and Nolte are amazing in this sequence, at once very funny and very sad in their total lack of communication. As the film progresses, Trout, the reclusive reprobate, seems increasingly wise and sane--but if and when they should meet, will he be able to get Dwayne to find any consolation in the classic philosopher's stance: It's the questions you pose, not answers you find, that are important?
     In short, there's a lot going on in "Breakfast of Champions," which takes its title from an expression invariably used by a cheery cocktail waitress when she's presenting a martini to a customer early in the day.
     Rudolph keeps things going briskly, but his entire approach to "Breakfast of Champions" is highly problematic.
     The film has a deliberately garish look and features a lot of cartoonish Pop Art fantasy touches that create an aura of overwhelming artificiality. The effect is to make everything and everyone seem unreal, a feeling heightened by the fact that it's impossible to believe that in contemporary America, when the film is set, a small-city car dealer could attain such status in the era of cable and every sort of media blitz. When TV was new in Los Angeles, for example, colorful hucksters such as Fletcher Jones, the Yeakel Brothers and Madman Muntz did become figures of local folklore--but that was nearly half a century ago.
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     Rudolph might well have profitably set "Breakfast of Champions" that far back--or at the very least the early '70s, when the book came out and when the Vietnam War was raging--to give a contrasting edge to Vonnegut's concern with raging consumerism, a by-now-familiar target. (That gifted composer Mark Isham incorporates a clutch of exotic Martin Denny standards from the '50s is inspired and adds to the feeling that the further back in the past, the better for this material.)      As it is, "Breakfast of Champions" is too in-your-face, too heavily satirical in its look, and its ideas not as fresh as they should be. For the film to have grabbed us from the start, Rudolph needed to make a sharper differentiation between the everyday world his people live in and the vivid world of their tormented imaginations. You wish that Dwayne and Harry, so brilliantly played by Willis and Nolte in all their pain and ludicrousness, could have seemed more real and less caricatured. Ironically, "Breakfast of Champions" was filmed largely in Twin Falls, Ida., which is the name of a current venturesome film about conjoined brothers--and one which handles feelings of longing and desperation in a more believable universe than the one depicted here.


Breakfast of Champions, 1999. R, for sexuality and for some language. A Buena Vista Pictures release of Hollywood Pictures and Flying Heart Films presentation. Director Alan Rudolph. Producers David Blocker and David Willis. Screenplay by Rudolph; based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Suzy Elmiger. Music Mark Isham. Visual effects supervisor Janet Muswell. Costumes Rudy Dillon. Production designer Nina Ruscio. Art director Randy Eriksen. Set decorator K.C. Fox. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Bruce Willis as Dwayne Hoover. Albert Finney as Kilgore Trout. Nick Nolte as Harry Le Sabre. Barbara Hershey as Celia Hoover.

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