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"If This Isn't Nice, What Is?" 

Remember Kilgore Trout? Breakfast of Champions dredges him up magnificently.

Nick Nolte, looking natural as a cross-dressing salesman.
  • Nick Nolte, looking natural as a cross-dressing salesman.
Growing up, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was the closest thing I had to a paternal mentor, the only authoritative voice I consistently trusted. Novel after freakish, scattershot, infinitely humane novel, the man provided tools to identify and cope with the daily horrors of America -- this vast sea of garbage exploited by rotten-hearted men. Vonnegut scrawled clever maps to aid in navigating around storms and past pirates. For these I am sincerely grateful, and sales indicate that I'm not alone in my appreciation of him.

At long last, director Alan Rudolph has wrestled to the screen an adaptation of Vonnegut's great Breakfast of Champions. When I sat down to view Rudolph's take on the novel -- considered "unfilmable" by studio heads for a quarter-century -- it was with a mixture of tentative glee and mild nausea. Glee prevailed. Breakfast of Champions is a cathartic eruption of giggles and a victory for all involved. Here's an adaptation that can rightfully be called brilliant.

The epicenter of this wiggly allegory is fictional (but all too real) Midland City -- part Palm Springs kitsch, part Syracuse ennui, all Middle American Hell. If this is a kingdom, Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis) is its reigning -- though utterly absurd -- monarch, a Pontiac dealer who owns and operates Dwayne Hoover's Exit 11 Motor Village with all the flair and veiled despair of a vaudeville huckster. He's a self-made local celebrity, recognized by everyone for his campy themed promotions and oft-bellowed mantra: "Ask anybody! You can trust Dwayne Hoover!"

It's Hawaiian Week at the Motor Village throughout the course of the movie, but the tacky trappings of the ersatz celebration are not adequate to conceal the obvious: Dwayne Hoover is going insane. Hoover is willfully silly and -- unlike William H. Macy's car dealer in Fargo -- not imbued with much darkness. Rather, in the claustrophobic, self-aggrandizing environment of his own creation, Hoover's psyche is on the verge of detonation. Adding to the strain are his TV-zombie wife, Celia (Barbara Hershey), and glammy lounge-lizard son, George -- who goes by "Bunny" (Lukas Haas).

People smile a lot in Midland City, but nobody is particularly happy, plagued as they are by delusions and neuroses. Hoover's longtime friend and sales associate Harry LeSabre (Nick Nolte) is a closet cross-dresser -- the house he shares with his lithe, voracious wife Grace (Vicki Lewis) is a dull ranch on the outside and a secret pleasure palace on the inside, festooned with tapestries and thick with incense. LeSabre is desperately paranoid that his boss is onto his "taboo" lifestyle. Then there's Hoover's earnest secretary, Francine Pefko (Glenne Headly), whose selfless devotion to her boss only exacerbates his dementia. Add in Wayne Hoobler (Omar Epps), a minor-league ex-con who hero-worships sound-alike Hoover and crashes the car dealer's "Fairyland," and this world is ready for a shift.

This is a tale of synchronicity and souls impacting upon one another, for en route to destiny is Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), a demented, impoverished writer of science fiction who has been invited to Midland City as an honored guest of the town's first-ever arts festival. Trout manages to find a copy of his old novel Now It Can Be Told in a pornography shop and brings it along for the presentation. Little does he know the metaphysical impact the book will have on Hoover's life, and his own.

Rudolph suffuses his movie with magical realism, making familiar icons surprising and alien concepts relatable. Cinematographer Elliot Davis and production designer Nina Ruscio create a supersaturated miasma that overflows the frame. The fever-dream intensity is further complemented by Mark Isham's jazzy score and the ultralounge songs of Martin Denny, and, happily, none of this obstructs the emotionally charged climax. Only temporally does the movie provoke criticism -- the story would make more sense if it were set thirty or forty years ago, rather than contemporaneously -- 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, Breakfast of Champions should easily stand the test of time.


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