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Cinemalphabet: B is for Breakfast of Champions (1999)

February 2, 2011

There have been those who suggest – well actually Vonnegut himself – the oeuvre of Vonnegut is wholly unfilmable. Despite the paucity of serviceable film adaptations of Vonnegut’s work and virtually nothing in the way of supporting evidence – except the glorious adaptation of Bluebeard starring Tony Shalboub and Joan Chen that’s been screening in my head for nearly a decade – I believe one day there will be a really fabulous adaptation of Vonnegut’s work. Yes, even better than Slaughterhouse Five, which is good, but somehow not good enough.

For the record, Breakfast of Champions – written/directed by Alan Rudolph and based on the beloved 1973 novel – is not such an adaptation. In fact, after a recent viewing it’s clear to me the film does everything in its power not to be a decent adaptation. There is a lot of chicken fried fail packed into the hour and forty so minute running time. We’re talking an efficiency of fail the likes of which are usually only found in 1980 anti-drug filmstrips and early 90s Cher beauty product infomercials. It would probably be useful – and this is just an observation – to filmmakers eager to put their own spin on Vonnegut’s work would at least have the decency to read them all the way through (to the end even!) prior to filming a single shot. The core story is not difficult to capture on film; out of print, crusty sci-fi writer gets invitation to attend swank writer’s con, which happens to take place in the same town where a car dealer has found the sci-fi writer’s work and is about to get buck wild on the entire city. But Alan Rudolph didn’t seem especially interested in that particular story. He was enamored by how “weird” all the ancillary characters and their situations were. The problem with Breakfast of Champions is tone and a lack of cohesion.

Look, Breakfast of Champions is a hilarious novel with a terribly bleak themes, particularly of race relations, classism and mental illness. None of the complex exploration of any of these themes makes it into the film, which seems to view crossdressers, black people and gay men as quirky garnishes in the tossed salad of the film’s plot. The film mocks in places where the novel was incredibly sympathetic. When the film ends I came away with the impression that Rudolph didn’t really “get” the novel at all.

Bruce Willis – a lightning rod for negative acting criticism – is not the problem here. In fact, he’s actually the most enjoyable aspect of the film, which otherwise is nothing but awful. I am constantly fascinated by Willis’ ability not to grate even when he’s in terrible films. It’s like a super power. I don’t care how bad the Willis turkey, I’m never mad at him or even pissed that I watched it. Usually I’m so flabbergasted by the fail, the way a mom can’t believe her cute baby could make such a stinky diaper. Hands down winner of “the main thing wrong this movie” award goes to Nick Nolte who is just dreadful as Dwayne Hoover’s (Willis) cross-dressing, close talking, wildly problematically depicted sales manager Harry Le Sabre. Nolte is acting as hard as he can and it makes for a truly dreadful filmwatching experience.

Willis, saddled with yet another insulting hairpiece – was Carpet World having a sale – attempts to keep the film on course with his rather “restrained” performance as Hoover, a car dealership owner who is slowly descending into madness. Keeping Hoover company is an unlikely person – namely his dead wife Celia – who the filmmaker saw fit to resurrect so the plot could be more efficiently derailed by her suicidal behavior. Barbara Hershey is ten kinds of stinky and about eight kinds of tedious in a role best left in the grave. Meanwhile, Omar Epps – not usually given to terrible performances – does so here, but I can only assume it this is because he was not given a script and isn’t a strong improviser. Otherwise what could account for his inability to make any goddamn sense.

You know a beloved classic is being butchered when upon seeing Vonnegut’s cameo the audience is not inclined to celebrate the event, but rather someone stands up in a crowded theater and says, “Someone arrest this man for these terrible crimes against his own work.” And by somebody, I mean me.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2011 12:51 pm

    Maybe Terry Gilliam could have done this some justice.

    I thought Glenne Headly also stayed afloat admirably on this stinking ship.

  2. February 3, 2011 5:12 pm

    Read the book way back when, and I was fairly hopeful of a good translation to film when I saw Alan Rudolph was directing. His films Choose Me and Trouble In Mind were well done, I thought.
    If it got a cinema release here, it must have lasted a week max in some inner city arthouse venue. I know that I’ve never read a review that filled me with a desire to track it down.

  3. February 5, 2011 11:52 am

    Oof this sounds painful. I dig the book but it’s not my favorite Vonnegut, so I held off for a bit on the film. Seems like I made the right choice! He’s an author I don’t need to see film adaptations of, really. The writing speaks for itself. I’ll probably check out the Slaughterhouse-five movie eventually though, since that’s my favorite.

    Good for Bruce, though! He really is unflappably likable.

  4. sheenyglass permalink
    February 14, 2011 12:35 pm

    “But Alan Rudolph didn’t seem especially interested in that particular story. He was enamored by how “weird” all the ancillary characters and their situations were.”

    Nailed it! I think this is the problem with adapting Vonnegut to the screen in general; without his narration and amazingly clean prose, the superficial wackiness of his characters can easily overwhelm the tone wry sadness that is, to my mind at least, what elevates his work beyond being simply black-comedy.

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