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Breakfast of Champions

Rated R, 114 min. Directed by Alan Rudolph. Starring Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, Barbara Hershey, Glenne Headly, Lukas Haas, Omar Epps, Buck Henry, Vicki Lewis.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 5, 1999

As failed screen adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novels go, Breakfast of Champions fails in a pretty spectacular manner but, to its everlasting credit, it goes down swinging and sometimes even connecting. The project was a well-publicized labor of love for director Alan Rudolph (Afterglow, Songwriter), who had tried to get this project off the ground for years, and for star (and unbilled producer) Bruce Willis, who bought the rights to Vonnegut's 1973 novel and invested a sizable chunk of his own money in the project. Why they felt they could succeed in translating Vonnegut's surrealist/antimaterialist/existentialist bent to the screen where so many others before them had failed is a mystery. But one thing they should have been aware of is the problem inherent in transplanting the film's time period to the present. Vonnegut's visions are so much a part of the times which they describe that to take Breakfast of Champions from its early Seventies backdrop is to nullify its prescience and satire. Rudolph also adds surrealist touches of his own in the way of optical effects, but they only serve to distract our attention and cause us to wonder about their purpose in the midst of all this otherwise realistic activity. Nevertheless, Breakfast of Champions has its delicious moments, as well as a wonderful cast to back these moments up. Willis does his serious acting thing (as opposed to his rote action-hero routine) in a nicely understated turn as a sort of Midwestern Babbitt coming unglued. As the area's biggest car dealer and star of his own hard-sell TV commercials, Willis' Dwayne Hoover is a local celebrity who, despite all the outward appearances of success, starts each day with a ritual that tests whether this will be the day he blows his brains out with a revolver. Practically stealing the show is Nolte as Dwayne's sales manager, who fears that his boss will discover his secret penchant for dressing in women's undergarments. The scene between these two men in Dwayne's office is so well-performed and staged that it alone makes the movie worth viewing. You'll have to wade through a lot of dull repetition in the latter half of the film, but if you choose to miss the sight of Nick Nolte in a red negligee, you have only your own conscience to answer to.
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