Breakfast of Champions

File this one under "Rudolph ... whoops." A hearty meal that starts off tickling the taste buds but ends up smothering them, "Breakfast of Champions" is a game attempt to film Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s 1976 satire on American greed and commercialism.

File this one under “Rudolph … whoops.” A hearty meal that starts off tickling the taste buds but ends up smothering them, “Breakfast of Champions” is a game attempt to film Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 1976 satire on American greed and commercialism. Pic has some fine individual moments but fails to cohere into a grander, more substantial statement on the themes it aspires to tackle. Supercharged on every level (and totally different in tone from his previous pic, “Afterglow”), Alan Rudolph’s movie is the kind of manic, social-commentary comedy that was in fashion when the source novel was written but now fits awkwardly into today’s blander Hollywood panorama, signaling weak B.O. Stateside.

Whatever coin the movie may make is likely to be in Europe, where German distrib Tobis opens it later this month. Its world-preem screening, in competition at the Berlin festival, drew opinion right across the spectrum, with many admiring individual perfs or qualities but few supporting the pic unconditionally and some writing it off as a complete failure.

Project has a long history, starting with Robert Altman asking Rudolph to do a script when the book first came out. Some six or seven years ago, Bruce Willis became interested, and finally called Rudolph a year ago, bankrolling the whole production. At the pic’s Berlin press conference, Rudolph stated that, at the time it was published, Vonnegut’s novel was about “the lunacy in the States regarding the American Dream.” Today, however, pic serves as more of a “reflection,” he added. Problem is that the writer-helmer hasn’t tailored the style of the movie toward such reflection, instead going for an in-your-face, eccentric comic style. Imagine a revved-up “The World According to Garp” and you’ll have an idea of how out of its time the movie feels.

First couple of reels are, however, very funny in their parody of a nightmare Middle American burg, here called Midland City. Spick-and-span, relentlessly upbeat Dwayne Hoover (Willis) runs the area’s most successful car dealership, Exit 11 Motor Village, and his hard-sell TV commercials dominate the local airwaves. Underneath his immaculate smile and slick threads, however, Dwayne is a troubled man: His wife (Barbara Hershey) is a negligee-wearing tube addict, his dog hates him, and he starts every day attempting to summon up the courage to blow his own brains out.

Dwayne’s longtime sales manager, Harry (Nick Nolte), likes to wear female undies and lives in permanent fear of being unmasked. And Dwayne’s secretary, the plastic Francine (Glenne Headly), drags Dwayne off for lunchtime quickies but is really more interested in making big bucks than making her boss. If that’s not enough, Dwayne is also under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency for his role in a local pollution scandal.

Centered on a span of a few days during Exit 11’s “Hawaiian Week” promo, the film follows the disintegration of Dwayne from all-American business legend to a man in desperate need of answers to the whys and wherefores of life.

By a series of coincidences, Dwayne becomes convinced that the man with the big solutions is hobo-like Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), a dime-store philosopher-hack whose copious novels have mostly been turned into wood pulp. Trout (a regular figure in Vonnegut’s books) has been invited to talk at Midland City’s Arts Festival that week but, after being robbed outside his dingy home back East, he’s forced to hitch his way across the U.S.

Finney, in a grouchy role that could have been played years ago by Sterling Hayden, is a major piece of miscasting as the eccentric Trout, who doesn’t come over half as funny as the picture needs him to; a large chunk of the running time crosscuts between his journey west and Dwayne’s growing paranoia in Midland City. By the time Dwayne and Trout meet, pic has long jumped the rails into semi-fantasy as a host of major and minor characters spin out of control at the hotel where the Arts Festival is based.

The danger signs, however, are evident long before the finale. After a mostly good first act introducing the characters, and an especially well played and scripted scene in which Harry thinks his “habits” have been discovered by Dwayne, the movie starts losing its focus in the central section, where little new humor is brought to the table and the cartoonishly stereotypical characters show no signs of being humanized. When the audience is asked to identify with them in the final stages, it’s too late.

Both Willis and Nolte are very good in the early going but are given no chance to step beyond their caricatures as the pic progresses. With Hershey stuck in a sketchily written part as Dwayne’s wife, it’s left to Headly as the not-so-ditzy secretary to prop up the distaff side, which she does well, catching the offbeat, less manic tone that the movie needs. Among the supports, Omar Epps is OK as an ex-con who’s always dreamed of working for Dwayne, Alison Eastwood shines briefly as an admirer of Trout, and Lukas Haas is weak as Dwayne’s lounge-room-singer son.

Nina Ruscio’s production design is a consistent pleasure, with a mass of small ironic details and an overall tacky look not derived from any one particular decade. Other tech credits are well tooled, though Mark Isham’s score is overly referential, given the already excessive tone. Pic was shot in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Breakfast of Champions

  • Production: A Summit Entertainment/Flying Heart Films presentation of a Sugar Creek Prods. production. (International sales: Summit, Santa Monica.) Produced by David Blocker, David Willis. Directed, written by Alan Rudolph, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  • With: Dwayne Hoover - Bruce Willis Kilgore Trout - Albert Finney Harry Le Sabre - Nick Nolte Celia Hoover - Barbara Hershey Francine Pefko - Glenne Headly Bunny Hoover - Lukas Haas Wayne Hoobler - Omar Epps Fred T. Barry - Buck Henry Grace Le Sabre - Vicki Lewis Eliot Rosewater - Ken Campbell Bill Bailey - Jake Johannsen Moe - Will Patton Andy Wojeckowzski - Chip Zien Gilbert - Ken Campbell Monte Rapid - Owen Wilson Maria Maritmo - Alison Eastwood Bonnie MacMahon - Shawnee Smith Commercials Director - Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Camera (color), Elliot Davis; editor, Suzy Elmiger; music, Mark Isham; production designer, Nina Ruscio; art director, Randy Eriksen; costume designer, Rudy Dillon; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul P. Soucek, Elizia A. Paley; visual effects supervisor, Janet Muswell; associate producer, Sandra Tomita; assistant director, Cara Giallanza; casting, Pam Dixon. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 13, 1999. Running time: 110 MIN.