Vonnegut's quirky vision falters on film

Review: "Breakfast of Champions," despite memorable turns by Willis and Nolte, fared better as a cult novel.

October 23, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Like the book from which it was adapted, "Breakfast of Champions," which began a week-long run yesterday at the Charles, is filled with off-kilter images and memorably overdrawn characters pointing the way toward some larger truth that even its creators aren't sure about. Except that they're sure it's out there.

But what works on the printed page, where readers can pause and reflect at will (or hurry on to the next passage) doesn't always translate well to the screen. Thus, director Alan Rudolph's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Vietnam-era classic, while faithful to the spirit of its source material, isn't the easiest thing to sit through.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. Rudolph, who also wrote the script, has fun lampooning rampant consumerism. Any film that puts Nick Nolte in a diaphanous dress deserves an A for effort. And some of the casting, especially Albert Finney as the grumbling, delusional science-fiction author Kilgore Trout, is inspired.

Bruce Willis gets to play Dwayne Hoover, the most famous man in Midland City, thanks to the omnipresent (and relentlessly awful) television ads he stars in for his Exit 11 Motor Village. Everybody loves Dwayne Hoover, even the cops who want to give him a speeding ticket, and everybody swears by him.

Except Dwayne Hoover himself, who's in the midst of a nervous breakdown. His wife (Barbara Hershey) is a near-comatose TV watcher; his sales manager (Nolte) a paranoid transvestite, his mistress (Glenne Headly) a wide-eyed hero worshiper, his son (Lukas Haas) a glittery, high-haired lounge singer.

Hoover has taken to beginning each day with a revolver in his mouth, waiting for an excuse not to use it; so far, he's been able to find them. But it's getting tougher. As his dealership celebrates its Hawaiian Week (the set designers deserve either an Oscar or a padded cell), it becomes clear the only person able to help him is Trout, a sci-fi writer (and closet humanist) whose work usually ends up on the back pages of girlie mags.

By aiming his barbs at our consumer-oriented society, Rudolph may have overshot his mark; there's not much here that we don't see on TV infomercials every day.

`Breakfast of Champions'

Starring Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte and Albert Finney

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Running time 110 minutes

Rated R (Language, sexuality)

Sun score: * * 1/2

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