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Bruce Willis Master Class: Breakfast of Champions (1999)

December 10, 2010

There have been those who suggest – well actually Vonnegut himself – the oeuvre of Vonnegut is wholly unfilmable. Despite the paucity of serviceable film adaptations of Vonnegut’s work and virtually nothing in the way of supporting evidence – except the glorious adaptation of Bluebeard starring Tony Shalhoub and Joan Chen that’s been screening in my head for nearly a decade – I believe one day there will be a really fabulous adaptation of Vonnegut’s work. Yes, even better than Slaughterhouse Five, which is good, but somehow not good enough. For the record, Breakfast of Champions – written/directed by Alan Rudolph and based on the beloved 1973 novel – is not such an adaptation.

The place where one normally finds filmy stink like this is on the underside of a Johnny-on-the-Spot! Oh Dr. Foreman, what are you doing? Did you eat some bad fish?

In fact, after a recent viewing it’s clear to me the film does everything in its power not to be a decent adaptation. There is a lot of chicken fried fail packed into the hour and forty so minute running time. We’re talking an efficiency of fail the likes of which are usually only found in 1980 anti-drug filmstrips and early 90s Cher beauty product infomercials. It would probably be useful – and this is just an observation – to filmmakers eager to put their own spin on Vonnegut’s work would at least have the decency to read them all the way through (to the end even!) prior to filming a single shot. The core story is not difficult to capture on film; out of print, crusty sci-fi writer gets invited to attend swank writers’ con, which happens to take place in the same town where a car dealer has found Kligore Trout’s work and is about to get buck wild on his friends and neighbors. But Alan Rudolph didn’t seem especially interested in that particular story. He was enamored by how “weird” all the ancillary characters and their situations were. The problem with Breakfast of Champions is tone and a lack of cohesion.

Look, Breakfast of Champions is a hilarious novel with a terribly bleak themes, particularly of race relations, classism and mental illness. None of the complex exploration of any of these themes makes it into the film, which seems to view crossdressers, black people and gay men as quirky garnishes in the tossed salad of the film’s plot. The film mocks in places where the novel was incredibly sympathetic. When the film ends I came away with the impression that Rudolph didn’t really “get” the novel at all. This is the only explanation for the omission of Rabo Karabekian’s gloriously smug defense of his painting.

Bruce Willis – a lightning rod for negative acting criticism – is not the problem here. In fact, he’s actually the most enjoyable aspect of the film, which otherwise is nothing but awful. I am constantly fascinated by Willis’ ability not to grate even when he’s in terrible films. It’s like a super power. I don’t care how bad the Willis turkey, I’m never mad at him or even pissed that I watched it. Usually I’m so flabbergasted by the fail, the way a mom can’t believe her cute baby could make such a stinky diaper. Hands down winner of “the main thing wrong this movie” award goes to Nick Nolte who is just dreadful as Dwayne Hoover’s (Willis) cross-dressing, close talking, wildly problematically depicted sales manager Harry Le Sabre. Nolte is acting as hard as he can and it makes for a truly dreadful filmwatching experience.

Willis, saddled with yet another insulting hairpiece – was Carpet World having a sale – attempts to keep the film on course with his rather “restrained” performance as Hoover, a car dealership owner who is slowly descending into madness. Keeping Hoover company is an unlikely person – namely his dead wife Celia – who the filmmaker saw fit to resurrect so the plot could be more efficiently derailed by her suicidal behavior. Barbara Hershey is ten kinds of stinky and about eight kinds of tedious in a role best left in the grave. Meanwhile, Omar Epps – not usually given to terrible performances – does so here, but I can only assume it this is because he was not given a script and isn’t a strong improviser. Otherwise what could account for his inability to make any goddamn sense.

Thank Xena for Glenne Headley’s heinie, which clad in fancy, old fashion bloomers, by far gives the best performance given the material it has to work with. Proving once again the only thing adept at being impressive in flimsy material is someone’s ass.

You know a beloved classic is being butchered when upon seeing Vonnegut’s cameo the audience is not inclined to celebrate the event, but rather someone stands up in a crowded theater and says, “Someone arrest this man for these terrible crimes against his own work.” And by somebody, I mean me.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 12:49 pm

    It seems like Rudolph decided to turn Breakfast of Champions into a madcap comedy, not understanding that is not the same thing as a story about madness that’s funny in places.

    The best thing about this film was Albert Finney, who delivered a Kilgore Trout every bit as endearing and irascible as I’d expect him to be. My experience watching this film was eerily similar to what happened when I watched Julie and Julia: it felt like I was watching two films, one very good and one very stinky.

  2. December 10, 2010 12:57 pm

    My experience watching this film was eerily similar to what happened when I watched Julie and Julia: it felt like I was watching two films, one very good and one very stinky.

    Very good point, Redlami. Randolph seemed to think being super literal in some patches and obtuse in others was the best approach. Albert Finney didn’t have a lot to work with either. They left out much of the lines that are iconic from the book.

  3. December 10, 2010 3:32 pm

    They left out much of the lines that are iconic from the book.

    Of course lots has to be left out when you make a film out of a book — unless you have rabid Harry Potter or LoTR fans to please. But as you point out this film not only fails to capture the spirit of the book, it also fails to tell any kind of a satisfying or coherent story at all. I always wonder when I see something like this, did anyone know what a stinker they had?

  4. December 10, 2010 4:51 pm

    oh Nolte. he is like the uncle I used to be crush on hardcore as a kid, but now that I’m older, I don’t want to be in public with him lest I be forced to have to apologize for his behavior.

    this reminds me: I keep meaning to search on line to see if someone has uploaded the movie “Julia” yet, where all the other parts have been excised. I would totally rewatch that 50 minutes!

  5. December 10, 2010 5:41 pm

    I think a movie such as this requires a special director, one that is fanatical about the source material, perhaps Richard Kelly(stop your booing, I like him). The is nothing I want to see more is a someone to make Breakfast Of Champions and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller into great films.

  6. IrishUp permalink
    December 10, 2010 5:48 pm

    Excellent takedown. And I will go see your “Bluebeard” , should you ever get it made.

    I wonder why no one has ever attempted “Cat’s Cradle”? It seems to me a manageble plot line for a film, and I think the world is ripe for some Bokonism right now.

  7. December 10, 2010 6:21 pm

    @1sttime0ffender: this is exciting news for my potential posts on Southland Tales as well as The Box!!

  8. December 10, 2010 6:42 pm

    1sttime, I think you might be on to something with Kelly. He did Darko right? I think he would be excellent at balancing the pathos and the dark humor. Nolte’s La Sabre has shades of Eddie Darko.

  9. December 10, 2010 7:46 pm

    @Raymond I am already excited to read your potential Kelly posts. I enjoy his attempts at expanding the movie experience beyond the film itself.

    @Snarky Yes ma’am he did Darko. The original not that drivel they tried to pass off as a sequel.

  10. December 10, 2010 8:19 pm

    1sttime, I love Darko. I think the direction is stellar. Is there a lot of Kelly hate?

  11. December 10, 2010 8:51 pm

    @Snarky oh yes, there are large group of people it seems who will pay him to stop making movies I think. I think Southland Tales was stellar but I actually read the corresponding graphic novels and followed the website. I can see how people would be turned of with the movie if it was judged solely on its own merits.

  12. December 10, 2010 10:14 pm

    Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted!!!

    Omg, I never knew what that movie was called, but I love Southland Tales. Haha. I didn’t realize this made me unique!

  13. December 11, 2010 1:34 pm

    I don’t know that Vonnegut wrote in such a way to make his stories untranslatable to film, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was at least some element of that happening when he crafted his tales. He seemed to go out of his way at times to make the story so abstract that the only way you could get it all was to come back to the source. Which just proves his genius once again: you have to buy his books!

    Of course, the reason an author sells the rights to a book (aside from the obvious payday that comes directly) is to heighten the level of consciousness for it… so hopefully, if the film is somewhat true to the text, people would be interested enough to seek it out. But with Vonnegut, you never got a film that was completely true to the text! The best you could hope for would be a “Slaughterhouse Five” scenario where the film was at least good enough to make you want to consider reading more. Too bad that’s not what happened here.

  14. December 14, 2010 10:46 am

    randomish comment! my first girlfriend was from twin falls, ID, which is where BoC was filmed! we were ‘dating’ at the time (oh, internet love), and her BFF got called to be a minor character, i think basically an extra with speaking parts, but he overslept or something and didn’t go. i think i was out there visiting here when filming was going on.

    so whenever i hear anything about BoC, i think of my crazy first girlfriend.

  15. December 14, 2010 11:24 am

    Ha. Tony, I for some reason remember this story!!!

  16. December 14, 2010 12:52 pm

    In talking about directors who might be able to bring Vonnegut to the screen, the first name that comes to my mind is Terry Gilliam. Because he manages to be weird in a way that doesn’t scream “look at me! I’m being weird!”

  17. December 14, 2010 1:11 pm

    In talking about directors who might be able to bring Vonnegut to the screen, the first name that comes to my mind is Terry Gilliam. Because he manages to be weird in a way that doesn’t scream “look at me! I’m being weird!”

    Absolutely. I think Gilliam’s direction in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is what was needed for BoC

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