Eat up

Vonnegut's unfilmable Breakfast of Champions is a magnificent movie after all

Only temporally does the movie provoke criticism -- the story would make more sense if it were set 30 or 40 years ago, rather than in the here and now, but a little suspension of disbelief clears that right up. The chief disgruntlement is that this film didn't come out before so much of the novel's iconography and sensibility were strip-mined in countless Middle American scrutinies. (That said, if Raising Arizona annoyed you, if True Stories bored you, if The Road to Wellville and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues simply befuddled you, chances are slim you'll groove on this.) Still, as a companion piece to the other fine, disparate Vonnegut adaptations (most notably Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night), Breakfast of Champions should easily stand the test of time.

That's a relief, since Vonnegut himself says in his introduction to the experimental teleplay Between Time and Timbuktu, "Film is too clankingly real, too permanent, too industrial for me...it is also too fucking expensive to be much fun." This opinion held in check, the author's dedication allows him to appear here in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as the director of one of Dwayne Hoover's tacky commercials. He's fine, of course, and the entire cast is truly stellar. Performances are adventurous and excellent -- there's not a clinker in the batch. Willis has so much intelligent fun with Dwayne Hoover that any and all Die Hards are forgiven. (Set this one beside The Fifth Element and Twelve Monkeys on your video shelf.) Finney gives Trout a cantankerous beauty that would be unimaginable with any other actor, his decades of genius filling out the script's telegraphed tics. Headly is a scream with her chirpy Francine Pefko, and Epps' Hoobler literally screams "FAIRYLAND!" with such abandon one realizes he's sane inside the collective insanity. Hershey is both cute and spooky, and Haas...well, imagine David Bowie at a Wurlitzer.

Dress for excess: Nick Nolte crosses the line with a brilliant, hilarious, and unexpected performance.
Dress for excess: Nick Nolte crosses the line with a brilliant, hilarious, and unexpected performance.

Details

Starring Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, Barbara Hershey, Glenne Headly, Lukas Haas, and Omar Epps

Opens October 8

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Screenplay by Alan Rudolph, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut

Bringing it all home is Nolte, always good, never before this preposterously funny. His terrified discomfort (and inevitable release) over cross-dressing is so palpable that one shudders right along with him. That sums up why Breakfast of Champions works so well: It's hard not to shudder at this glimpse of poisonous artificiality and the erratic things it makes us do. A movie this incisive almost makes me want to cut a little slack for Dad, and for America.

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