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by: Michael Dequina

If you're debating whether or not to see Breakfast of Champions, ask yourself one simple question: do you want to see Nick Nolte in lingerie? The only people who would get much enjoyment from Alan Rudolph's chaotic adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel is the cross-section of the population with the unhealthy urge to see that unpleasant sight. Everyone else--and I'm hoping that's most people--would be wise to steer clear of this excrutiatingly unfunny mess.

Actually, though, the sight of Nolte in high heels is one of the more amusing things about this muddle, which focuses Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis), the owner of Dwayne Hoover's Exit 11 Motor Village in Midland City. Not only is he a huge success as a businessman, he's also something of a celebrity, his face made recognizable by an ongoing series of television commercials. With a nice home and family to boot, Dwayne appears to have it all the ingredients to be happy--yet he's not. His wife Celia (Barbara Hershey) is perpetually in a pill-induced haze; his son George (Lukas Haas) is a flamboyant lounge singer who goes by the stage name "Bunny." Not only that, the Environmental Protection Agency is on Dwayne's ass over a building development project. It's enough to send Dwayne on a nervous breakdown--that is, if he doesn't succeed in blowing his brains out first.

Meanwhile, Midland City is about to host a fine arts festival, and the guest of honor is one Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), a writer who is far from the renowned author the festival's organizer (Buck Henry) was led to believe--in fact, he's a penniless hack who writes second-rate sci-fi that appears in porn magazines. His trek to Midland City is also a spiritual journey, one that reaches its apex after meeting Dwayne, who for some reason thinks that Trout will hold for him all of life's answers.

The above is already a longer plot synopsis than I usually give in my reviews, but, ironically, I have barely scratched the surface. I haven't yet mentioned Wayne Hoobler (Omar Epps), an ex-con with an obsessive admiration for the similarly-named Dwayne. Then there's the matter of Francine (Glenne Headly), Dwayne's devoted secretary. Not to mention Dwayne's employee and old friend Harry LeSabre (Nolte), the one with the secret penchant for cross-dressing. And so on. The film is essentially Dwayne's story, but too often Rudolph goes on distracting tangents with the eccentric peripheral players that one often wonders what the point is.

Rudolph does arrive at a point (more on that later), but it's blunted and obscured by his hyperactive approach to the material. The surreal visual style, complete with printed words flying through the air and into Dwayne's ears, is obviously meant to convey a sense of madness, but its bludgeoning nature is likely to make viewers mad. The actors are called on to act accordingly, resulting in some of the worst, most overdone work all of them have ever turned in. Willis fares best of all--but that's because his frozen expression of befuddled bewilderment mirrors that of the audience.

With such an aggressively outrageous atmosphere for nearly all of its running time, it comes as a shock when things suddenly turn serious, and Rudolph tries to make a statement. Unlike American Beauty (a film that Breakfast resembles in more than a few ways, to its great detriment), there isn't any palpably earnest undercurrent that would prepare the audience for the big shift. As such, the cartoony characters fail to win a sympathy that needs to be earned; and the film attempts, to no avail, to reach a profundity that it doesn't deserve.

Vonnegut's original novel is considered a classic, but it had been called unfilmable--the same that was said of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was disastrously committed to film last year by Terry Gilliam. With the similar failure of Breakfast of Champions, will Hollywood ever learn


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